A Twin Cities contractor pleaded guilty Monday to coercing an undocumented man into working for his company.
Ricardo E. Batres, 47, pleaded guilty in Hennepin County District Court to one count each of labor trafficking and insurance fraud, both felonies. As part of his plea deal, a felony count of theft by swindle will be dismissed.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said he could not be certain the Batres case is the first of its kind in Minnesota, but some activists said it was a rarity that will lead to change in the construction industry.
"I personally lived a lot of abuses in the construction industry, and now I'm standing up against cases like this," said Eustacio Orosco, an activist with the labor rights group, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL).
Activists who attended the hearing called on the construction industry to stop hiring contractors that out-compete others by using coerced, undocumented workers in order to bid low on projects.
Batres agreed to five years' probation and nine months in the county workhouse. He will have to serve at least four months in the workhouse with no work release before he is eligible to serve the rest of the time on work release or electronic home monitoring.
The maximum prison terms for the trafficking, theft and fraud charges Batres faced are 15, 20 and 10 years, respectively.
Batres is not in custody and will be sentenced Jan. 15. He and his attorneys, Fred Bruno and Stephen Foertsch, declined to comment afterward.
Freeman said such crimes are difficult to prove, but that the Batres case came together because the victims and advocates came forward.
"Human trafficking is a real crime," Freeman said. "It's a crime that hits you right in the gut."
The county attorney's office was adamant that Batres serve time in the workhouse, Freeman said, and that as a condition of his plea, he is no longer eligible to work on projects funded by state or federal funds.
Freeman said his office is aware of a handful of similar cases that are under investigation in Hennepin County.
Batres operated Crystal-based American Contractors. Although he admitted in court to victimizing one person in 2017, charges filed against him last year said he had as many as 12 people working for him finishing wood framing and wallboard installation across Minnesota.
According to the criminal complaint: Batres brought workers to Minnesota and threatened to report them to immigration officials if they complained about being underpaid and working in dangerous conditions.
He told injured workers they would be deported if they sought medical attention. He forced one employee to work through threats and "physical restraint," and another worker suffered spinal fractures after a prefabricated wall fell on him, the charges said.
Batres admitted under questioning by Foertsch that in 2017 he paid $6,000 to bond a man out of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. The man worked for him to pay back his debt, which Batres admitted was not necessary because he would have received his money back if the man returned to court.
Batres also admitted that he lied on his workers' compensation policy and reported that he had no employees, which resulted in a $5,000 savings in his premiums.