Immigration agency targets upscale San Diego restaurant


Reporting from San Diego

In this palm-lined seaside neighborhood, Michel Malecot is known for dishing out the tasty baguettes, pastries and wedding cakes that have made his French Gourmet restaurant a fixture for 31 years.

But when federal authorities raided his eatery, they discovered that his recipe for success included a staff of illegal immigrant workers from Mexico — pastry chefs, bakers and cake decorators, some of whom had worked the ovens for 15 years.

The chef, popular in San Diego catering and philanthropic circles, was indicted last month on 12 felony counts of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

The indictment reflects a new approach by federal authorities as they crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants in the United States. After years of conducting sweeps of undocumented laborers, the federal government is now focusing more on the employers who knowingly hire them.

Malecot, 52, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face a maximum of five years in prison per count and a $250,000 fine per count. The government is also seeking to seize the restaurant, which includes the bakery and a catering business as well as a neighboring building owned by Malecot, saying the property should be forfeited because it was used in a crime.

The indictment charges that Malecot and his manager, Richard Kauffman, 51, knowingly hired illegal immigrants for several years, even after being notified that the workers’ Social Security numbers were false.

A gregarious man who built his business after emigrating from France, Malecot said that he’s a “stickler on paperwork” and that the undocumented workers represented a tiny fraction of the hundreds he has employed over the years. “We’re just regular guys trying to make a living,” he said in an interview at his restaurant, which has remained open since the raid.

His lawyer criticizes the government’s effort to seize the restaurant. “The forfeiture laws are made for crack and methamphetamine [cases], not crème brûlée,” said attorney Eugene Iredale.

But the government’s strategy seems to have accomplished one of its goals — using a high-profile case to warn other businesses that they, too, could be hit. In San Diego, the French Gourmet case has generated extensive media coverage.

“Even a small amount of concerted, uniform enforcement can get a lot of attention — and it has,” said John Morton, chief of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Individual cases get a lot of attention. And we are doing this across the country in every state in the nation, calmly, methodically and with purpose.”

The strategy contrasts sharply with that of the Bush administration, which conducted highly publicized work-site raids — with armed immigration agents — that led to the arrest and deportation of thousands of illegal workers but few criminal prosecutions of employers.

Obama called those raids ineffective and criticized them for dividing families and not holding employers accountable for creating a magnet for illegal crossers.

Experts said it’s too early to gauge whether the strategy, which began last year, will truly deter the hiring of illegal immigrants. But many businesses appear to be doing more avoid being targeted. About 1,400 new businesses each week join E-Verify, a voluntary electronic program that checks whether new hires are authorized to work in the U.S. Nearly 17,000 employers in California and 204,000 nationwide are enrolled.

Federal officials are turning to some other familiar tactics, most notably the use of use of audits to check for illegal workers. Since July, the government has notified more than 1,600 companies nationwide of plans to audit their records. Hundreds of inspections are ongoing.

In fiscal year 2010, which ends in September, the agency fined 109 companies a total of about $3 million, up from $675,00 in fines against 18 companies in fiscal year 2008. And so far this fiscal year, 65 employers have been arrested, compared to 135 in all of 2008.

Immigration attorney Josie Gonzalez said her clients take note when other employers get arrested. “It is pretty scary,” she said. “No. 1, someone could go to jail, and No. 2 … you are looking at your life earnings going down the drain and all your property and goods being seized by the government.”

In January, authorities charged the owner of an Ohio-based Mexican restaurant chain with hiring dozens of illegal immigrants and paying them in cash to avoid paying the required taxes. The next month, agents arrested a owner of a Chinese restaurant in Hanover, Md., for allegedly employing illegal immigrants and housing them at a place she owned.

The case against French Gourmet seemed designed to make a lasting impression. On the morning of the initial raid in May 2008, teams of federal agents descended on tranquil Turquoise Street, blocking streets and alleys before raiding the bakery and whisking away 18 handcuffed immigrants.

The concentrated law enforcement presence was a sight to behold in the neighborhood dotted with surfer bars, yoga studios and clothing boutiques. “That was a day to remember.... You would have thought they caught Bin Laden,” said one local businessman, who declined to be identified because he didn’t want to draw attention to his business.

The chef’s case has become somewhat of a cause celebre for some residents and customers in the affluent neighborhood between La Jolla and Pacific Beach. Customers have been pouring into his restaurant, and many have sent letters of support. Malecot is well known for donating food to charities, including law enforcement, military and medical aid groups.

John Reece, 75, sitting in the Veterans of Foreign Wars banquet hall down the street, said stricter enforcement of immigration laws is necessary and somebody has to be the example. But Reece said the government shouldn’t seize the eatery, especially given the number of empty storefronts and struggling businesses in the area.

“Taking his business would do more damage than good,” he said.

Besides, Malecot’s skills would be missed, said Claudia Woodward, 58, a culinary student. “He’s got good food,” she said.

If the goal was to send a message, it worked, said some businessmen. The nearby owner who complained of heavy-handed tactics said he worries about coming under scrutiny for inadvertently hiring an illegal immigrant who uses false documents. “You don’t want to open your door and be surrounded by ICE agents,” he said.