HOUSTON (CN) - Two Houston men accused of supplying false identities to undocumented garbage workers could be sentenced to more than 50 years in federal prison if convicted in their jury trial.
Rudy Martinez and Israel Martinez, who are not related, face 18 immigration-related charges in the trial that began this week. Trials in such cases are rare because defendants usually take a plea deal. Three of the five people charged in this case have pleaded guilty.
It began when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided a Waste Management garbage truck yard on Afton Road in Houston.
ICE arrested 16 undocumented immigrants in the April 24, 2012 raid at the yard, run at the time by Associated Marine & Industrial Staffing dba AMI Staffing, which had a $20 million contract with Waste Management.
Waste Management is one of the nation's biggest trash and recyclable collecting companies. The government did not prosecute or fine it because all of the people arrested worked for AMI Staffing.
Waste Management spokeswoman Lisa Doughty told Courthouse News on Thursday that the company cooperated with the federal investigation and tightened up its employment practices after the raid.
"The steps we took included switching temporary staffing vendors, putting in place a new temporary labor program director, launching an internal immigration task force, and conducting random audits. Five employees were terminated. We're not aware of any government actions directed at the company," Doughty said in an email.
Israel Martinez drove a Waste Management garbage truck, a position that put him in charge of "helpers" who rode on the back of the truck and collected the garbage, according to testimony Thursday, the third day of trial.
Rudy Martinez started out as a driver and was promoted to schedule manager, Juan Benitez testified.
Benitez took the stand Thursday morning for the prosecution and told the jury he paid a coyote $5,500 to smuggle him into the United States through Mexico because he couldn't survive on the $42.50 weekly salary from his welding job in El Salvador.
Speaking through an interpreter, Benitez said he traveled to Houston and bought an identification in someone else's name at a pulga, or flea market.
"I knew I was breaking the law but I felt I had no choice," he said. Though El Salvador's civil war is over, the country is still wracked by violence.
Benitez often paused as he stared at the Martinezes' defense attorneys as if meditating on their questions, his thick black hair and handlebar mustache offset by a purple shirt.
Clasping his fingers at his chest, he said that after AMI Staffing fired him "because I had no documents," Israel and Rudy Martinez told him he could get his job back if he had "good papers."
Benitez told federal prosecutor Casey MacDonald that it didn't take long for him to find a new identification and Social Security number through a friend of a friend at his apartment complex.
He said Samantha Romo gave him the Social Security number and identification of her father, a man he'd never seen before Thursday, when prosecutors displayed a close-up photo of his face on a projector.
Romo's father seemed present in the courtroom, staring intensely out of a face lined with deep wrinkles at the jury of seven women and five men, none of them Hispanic.