On January 4, U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington sentenced Denis Burke (54) to two years in prison, followed by two years of supervised release. Burke pleaded guilty in September to employing illegal aliens at his dairy operations. In exchange for a guilty plea, prosecutors dismissed four more counts of the same charge. Madeline Burke (51), Burke’s wife and codefendant,pleaded guilty in June to one count of hiring without verification of employment eligibility. At her sentencing in September, she received two years' probation. She was also ordered to pay the same fine with monthly installments of $15,600.
The Burkes own Parisville Dairy in Huron County and Dunganstown Dairy in Tuscola County, Michigan. Between February 2008 and May 2013, the pair hired and lodged more than 100 illegal immigrants to work on their farms. "Denis Burke gave the illegal aliens free housing on or next to his farms so the illegal aliens would be readily available for work and less accessible to immigration authorities," states Denis Burke’s plea agreement. "Because the illegal aliens lacked valid documentation, they could not get driver's licenses, open accounts at financial institutions so they could cash paychecks themselves, or register vehicles with the Michigan Secretary of State."
In order to evade detection, Burke’s workers relied on others to drive them. On Feb. 1, 2013, a Bad Axe police officer pulled over a vehicle driven by Yolanda Stewart that contained five passengers. All of the passengers were illegal immigrants employed by Burke. Both Denis Burke and Madeline Burke are natives of Ireland.
According to his plea agreement, Denis Burke was aware that Stewart regularly drove the illegal immigrants into a nearby town for shopping and to wire money to their families. Police found paystubs from the farms, MoneyGram receipts, and an identification document issued by the Mexican consulate in Stewart's car. The five passengers were arrested, alarming Burke’s remaining employees and making fear leaving. Denis Burke, according to the document, paid Stewart $800 to buy groceries for his workers so the farms could continue operating, the document states.
In 2010, a couple from the Netherlands who operated a farm in the same region was prosecuted on similar charges. There are reports that the Department of Homeland Security is zeroing in on dairy operations throughout Michigan. In 2011, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Johannes Martinus Verhaar and Anthonia Marjanne Verhaar -- owners of Aquila Farms, LLC., a dairy based in Bad Axe, Michigan -- pleaded guilty to employing illegal immigrants. According to court records, from 2000 through 2007, Aquila Farms employed 78 different illegal immigrants -- almost 75 percent of its workforce over that time period. Aquila Farms failed to accurately determine the employment eligibility of its workforce, as required by federal law. According to ICE, some of the illegal immigrants employed by the Verhaars were hired on multiple occasions using different names or Social Security numbers despite the Verhaars being notified by both the Social Security Administration and ICE that its employees were not authorized to work in the United States.
“The defendants encouraged or induced the illegal aliens to reside in the United States by providing them with employment and free housing on the farm, away from scrutiny by ICE and the surrounding community,” the statement said.
The Verhaar couple and Aquila Farms pleaded guilty to hiring illegal immigrants. They agreed to pay fines and a payment in lieu of forfeiture totaling $2.7 million. Both of the Verhaars emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s and were legal residents. They have four children. Their farm had been raided multiple times by ICE.
In 2016, three people were indicted by a federal grand jury in nearby Bay City. Irene Maria Martinez Gonzales, Tina Frost, and William Carlson were indicted on March 9, 2016. According to a federal indictment, Martinez Gonzales was routinely contacted by farmers who told her how many workers they needed. She provided labor contracting services to 17 local farms. DHS raided farms in Cass City and Ruth in rural Huron County, Michigan. The indictment said that the three accused had “transported illegal aliens to farms in Huron and Tuscola counties, and elsewhere in the Eastern District of Michigan, to enable the illegal aliens to obtain work and the farms to obtain the services of the illegal alien workers.”
Farmers in Michigan have complained, while they support compliance with the law, that immigration rules and documents are difficult. In one case cited by the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Washington Potato Company and Pasco Processing were fined $225,750 because they required a specific document from non- U.S. citizen workers while not requiring a specific document from U.S. citizens. In May, the Department of Justice ruled these as “discriminatory documentary practices when based on citizenship status or national origin” in a May 17 press release.
Farmers in Michigan complain that they are unable to find American workers willing and able to work on farms and have sought to increase the availability of legal immigrant labor through guest worker programs and a loosening of the immigration laws.