For nearly four years, the operators of six hair and beauty kiosks at the Mall of America recruited foreign nationals, housed them in apartments near the mall, and shuttled them to and from work, all while knowing they were not eligible to be employed in the United States, authorities say.
The alleged conspiracy at the nation’s largest shopping mall involved the Natural Beauty, Ya & Ya and Hollywood Hair kiosks and ran from September 2009 until mid-June.
The operators’ indictments mark the second time in less than a week that investigations of how local employers use immigrant workers have come to light. Last week, a group of Spanish immersion day cares came under scrutiny after 40 percent of the staff left rather than submit proof of their employment eligibility to federal immigration authorities.
In this most current case, four of the kiosks’ employees were from Israel, and one was from Ukraine, according to the criminal complaint. All were in the country on visitor visas and not authorized to work while they sold hair care and other beauty products at the mall.
Charged in federal court in St. Paul last week were Avraham Nadivi, 31, Yehiel Shpitser, 30, and Adam Vaknin, 32, all of St. Paul; and Yosi Rachamim, age 31, of Woodland Hills, Calif. All are natives of Israel and legal U.S. residents.
The counts against them include conspiracy to commit unlawful employment and harboring of aliens, seven counts of unlawful employment of aliens, and four counts of harboring of certain aliens.
Nadivi, the kiosks’ CEO, paid the employees’ rent and electricity at Pebblebrook apartments at W. 98th Street and France Avenue in Bloomington, the complaint added.
They typically were driven the seven or so miles to work by at least one of the defendants in a black SUV or a black luxury sedan, authorities allege.
By not reporting the five employees, the kiosks’ operators dodged having to pay some benefits to the workers, according to the complaint.
Businesses remain open
An attorney for one of the defendants said the kiosk owners will be working to verify the records of their employees. All six businesses remained open on Monday.
“Obviously, this is a huge distraction, and there are great concerns,” said attorney Richard Kyle, who has been retained by Shpitser. “They are running the business. They’re looking at who they’ve got there and making sure anyone they’ve got working out there is legal.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one person with knowledge of the case said the defendants at first entered the United States on tourist visas but eventually obtained permanent legal residence and began operating the businesses as a limited liability company in 2008. As many as 90 percent of the employees at the kiosks are American citizens, the person said. Other employees were often young adults and may have been housed in the apartments because of their unfamiliarity with the United States.
One of the employees, Lihi A. Elgrably, 26, a native of Israel, has also been charged with making false claims about her work history so that she could obtain lawful permanent resident status and authorization to work.
According to the complaint against her, Elgrably, who is now married to a U.S. citizen, came to the United States in 2008 from Israel as a tourist and was granted an extension to stay. She worked at the kiosks even though her visa status prohibited her from being employed, the complaint said. She was eventually granted an immigration status that allowed her to work but is accused of covering up her previous employment on her application.
Feds target workplaces
The indictments are part of a pattern of federal immigration policy that targets workplaces. Federal authorities warn that document and benefit fraud poses a threat to national security and public safety.
Last year, Earl Seth David, a Canadian-born dual citizen of Canada and the United States, was arrested in the United States for conspiracy, visa fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. He was the founding partner of a large immigration law firm in the United States. Also known as Rabbi Avraham David, he applied for legal status for 25,000 illegal immigrants based on phony claims that U.S. employers had sponsored them. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Also last year, a federal program called Operation Island Express targeted large-scale trafficking of legitimate Puerto Rico birth certificates and U.S. Social Security cards in 33 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Fifty people have been indicted in that case.