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Rats in the Kitchen

Patriotic service or reckless slander? A Web site comes under fire for outing alleged employers of illegal immigrants.

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In a business reliant on seasonal labor, Jeff Johnstone says he still sticks to his principles, hiring only legal employees — even as some of his competitors use low-wage illegal workers to cut costs.

So it came as a bit of a surprise last November when the Henrico County-area supplier of party tents and equipment took an early morning call from one of his employees to hear that "some talk show on WRVA" had outed him for using illegal workers.

"I do not," says Johnstone, who tracked the accusation back to a Web site, www.wehirealiens.com. The site's made a splash recently by supposedly ratting out companies from coast to coast.

"That's what frustrates me so deeply," Johnstone says, "because I have competitors who do [use illegals]. I know it happens in my industry; let's put it that way."

The Web site, operated by the Internet-based FIRE Coalition, listed Johnstone's business, Party Perfect, among its compilation of alleged Richmond-area offenders, which so far includes seven businesses reported by concerned citizens.

Rounding out the alleged offenders are James River Exteriors, Capital Interior Contractors, Chesterfield United Soccer Club, Continental $1.75 Cleaners, Evergreen Enterprises, and the El Tio and Los Rios Mexican restaurants.

The site gets all its submissions from people online, says FIRE Coalition co-founder Jason Mrochek, who lives in California. A legal disclaimer on the Web site, which catalogs more than a thousand alleged employers of illegals across the country, says the rest: "We cannot independently verify every piece of information provided us, and are not responsible for doing so."

To Johnstone, "not responsible" sounds more like irresponsible.

The Henrico businessman says his seasonal foreign workers — typically he uses them to fill gaps during the summer event and wedding rush — are obtained legally through the federal government's H-2B visa program.

Hiding behind the disclaimer, Mrochek seeks to avoid legal penalties for taking liberties with innocent businesses' reputations. Despite this, Johnstone says, he begrudgingly agrees with the intent — if not the execution — of Mrochek's site.

"I think that the idea of the Web site is to attack companies that use illegal aliens," Johnstone says, "and quite frankly I would not be opposed to that, because it does not put me on a level playing field with my competition."

He went to considerable lengths to have his company removed from the site, only to be told that the federal forms he provided were not adequate: "I jumped through lots of hoops, and eventually I said, 'You know what, you're not interested in what I have to say,'" Johnstone recalls, wondering if Mrochek is in over his head. "I felt like if these people really had a grasp of the issues, as soon as I mentioned H-2B they should have taken my name off of there."

The Party Perfect posting remains. Could Johnstone justify taking legal action?

"Under Virginia law, it's defamation per se to impute to a person the commission of a criminal offense involving moral turpitude," says Bob Redmond Jr., a lawyer with Williams Mullen who deals in immigration law.

In other words, "There's a pretty good case to be made that they're being defamed," he says of the businesses knocked on the site — even though the site acts as a conduit for others' behavior.

Redmond also believes the entire enterprise may be built on a shaky premise, at least in Virginia, by assuming Hispanic workers are illegals. He points to a law that assigns "temporary protected status" to illegal immigrants from certain countries, specifically the Central American countries of Honduras and El Salvador.

Citizens of both countries — even illegals — are given congressional protection because of civil wars and environmental disasters there. And migration patterns show Virginia is home to a high concentration of undocumented immigrants from these two countries.

The Web site, however, soldiers on. Its anonymous reports feature often breathless, sometimes secondhand accounts of illegal labor practices.

One poster, offering what he considered airtight proof of transgressions at El Tio and Los Rios, claims to "know the owner personally." The poster writes that he worked at Los Rios, and during his employment, "I was the only legal employee there."

The anonymous posting signs off with an allegation that the business owner in question "is very dangerous when provoked, and I do fear for my familys' [sic] safety."

The restaurant's owner, and some of the other businesses named on the site, did not return calls for comment.

But Joseph Farrell did. The director of coaching for Chesterfield United Soccer Club came to the area about seven years ago, initially on an H-2B visa.

"I worked hard and paid my dues and went through the system legally in order to get where I am today," Farrell says. "I'm very proud of the fact that I've done that, and it kind of disgusts me when I see other people getting slandered."

The club is outed on Mrochek's site for allegedly having on staff a coach who lacks proper documentation, an allegation Farrell says is simply untrue. The accusatory posting names the coach.

But the very public profile of the organization — one of four soccer clubs in Richmond that together provide an outlet for as many as 15,000 youth — makes the illegal claim all the more unlikely, he says.

The club's president, Joe Pugh, in a message left at Style, says the allegation was made by an angry parent bearing a grudge against a specific coach.

"We do everything aboveboard, and we go through lawyers — we're very proud of that fact," Farrell says.

Mrochek acknowledges that some businesses are likely to get caught in the crossfire of the hot issue of illegal labor, especially when the battle has forced proponents of legal hiring practices to resort to such guerrilla tactics as public shaming.

"We're well within First Amendment issues here — it's a topic that's in the media all the time, and people are reporting what they've witnessed and seen," he says. "I liken it to: If you saw a beat-up old car pulled up in front of your kid's school, and he was trying to get kids to get in … you would probably take down a license plate, make and model of the car, and the time he was there."

Even if the hypothetical child-predator tip proves unfounded, Mrochek says, it's still your civic responsibility to report the supposed offender.

"We're doing a civic duty in turning over information to the authorities," Mrochek says. "These people are … breaking the law as soon as they step foot in our country. They're bettering themselves at our expense."

Since the site's launch in November, it has provided legitimate tips to law enforcement, Mrochek says.

Raids at IFCO Systems (a pallet manufacturer), Crider Poultry and the high-profile Swift and Co. meats all benefited from information posted at wehirealiens.com, he says.

"All three of those were on our site well before the investigation," Mrochek says.

Mrochek says he's fielded calls from law-enforcement agencies seeking information to aid investigations, and has provided it in cases that have resulted in arrests of illegal workers.

Mrochek offers only the briefest apologies for his scattershot technique of identifying — or misidentifying — immigration and labor-law violators, saying that collateral damage is so slight to the maligned companies that it's well worth it if authorities wind up capturing true offenders.

"Traditionally, hiring illegal aliens has been a no-brainer; nobody checks," he says. "Now it becomes a conscious choice: If I do this, someone out there might report this to wehirealiens.com."

Pronouncements may sound patriotic, but Johnstone says that no excuse justifies Mrochek's tactics that allow nameless grudge-holders to post lies. "I was pretty offended that they would take an anonymous person and allow them to slander my business," he says. S

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