A father and son from Woburn were charged this week in federal court with a forced labor conspiracy in relation to workers they allegedly smuggled into the country to work in their two Brazilian restaurants.
Jesse Moraes, and his son Hugo Moraes were charged in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts in a case that raises the seriousness of accusations, and punishment in the restaurant-exploitation related case. Jesse’s brother Chelbe Moraes — who lives in Brazil — also was charged in the alleged scheme. Jesse and Hugo Moraes had initially been arrested and charged with human smuggling last fall. Now, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins has upgraded those charges so all three were charged with counts of forced labor. Jesse Moraes also was charged with labor trafficking.
The case was profiled in a January story by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting focused on exploitation in the state’s restaurant industry. Several immigrant advocates said they were concerned that restaurant employers should have faced labor trafficking charges in the Woburn case — as a sign to others about the seriousness of the case and to help victims of forced labor. Now two months after the GBH News investigation and questioning, additional charges are brought.
The Department of Justice didn't say why Rollins’ office had amended the charges when asked by GBH News, and said it couldn’t comment on matters before court. She has previously told GBH News that forced labor is “vastly underreported. It is vastly under-investigated and it is vastly under-prosecuted.”
Advocates believe the new charges are more on par with the harms against the immigrants.
“This case showcases how frequently smuggling and trafficking can be intertwined. But all too often prosecutors fail to recognize the signs of trafficking. For this reason, the superceding indictment is an important sign,” said Julie Dahlstrom, director of the Immigrants' Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law. She says the case helps other immigrant workers working in the shadows to know abusive employers can’t “operate with impunity.”
Prosecutors say the men helped smuggle immigrants into the country who then were forced to work for little or no pay to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt. They said they were placed in a home run by the family and threatened with being kicked out, or worse, if they didn’t pay what they owed. The three men were initially charged in October with human smuggling.
Rollins said in a written statement that the defendants “conspired to take advantage of the American dream,” by exploiting people coming to the U.S. for a better life.
“This case is another stark example of the human trafficking that’s happening every single day in our country and our commonwealth and the heinous lengths some employers go to in the pursuit of profit,’’ she said in a press release. “The victims in this case are real people with families who have taken on immeasurable risk to come to the United States, only to be met with threats of violence and oppression. Such conduct will not be tolerated in our commonwealth.”
There has only been one conviction of forced labor in the federal court in Massachusetts in more than two decades and none in the state’s court under a newer law.
This is the second case of forced labor filed by Rollins’ office since she took office last year. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed one count of forced labor against a Boston-area owner of a pizzeria chain, Stavros Papantoniadis. Last week, a federal grand jury indicted Papantoniadis with seven additional counts related to alleged abuse of at least seven victims, who lacked documents to work in the country, “forcing them to work while subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, including repeated threats of deportation,” according to a press release. The case is pending.
Lawyers for Jesse and Hugo Moraes could not be reached for comment. The two men own the Woburn restaurants Taste of Brazil and the Dog House Bar and Grill, situated near each other on the city’s Main Street. According to court documents, Chelbe Morales helped smuggle migrants into the United States from Brazil for a fee of some $18,000 to $22,000.
Jesse and Hugo allegedly “promised them good jobs and a better life” working at their restaurants. But when they arrived in Massachusetts, they were subjected to long hours, withheld wages, and “threats of serious harm — including financial harm, violence and deportation to prevent them from quitting,’’ the press release said.
Forced labor is making someone work by use of force or physical threats of violence, or threatening deportation. Labor trafficking can include recruiting employees, potentially housing, transporting, or obtaining a worker for the purpose of forced labor.
The defendants are also being accused of providing false documentation to victims to support asylum claims, which can carry long-term impacts to those immigrants, putting them in jeopardy of deportation.
Attorneys for the defendents have not responded to GBH News' requests for comment on the upgraded charges. But in January, Paul Kelly, attorney for Hugo Moraes said in an email, “We are confident that the evidence in this case will demonstrate that Mr. Moraes had no involvement in any ‘human smuggling’ activities or any effort to knowingly evade the law.”