Women acquitted in U.S. immigration case

Thursday, October 9, 2008

By Lisa Schlichtman

Six times the words "not guilty" were repeated by the jury foreman, acquitting two Barry County women of all charges leveled against them by the federal government claiming the pair helped harbor illegal aliens.

With each pronouncement of innocence, Jody Salinas, 30, of Butterfield, and Hilda Gomez, 36, of Exeter, began allowing themselves to feel hope for the first time in 11 months. They began to believe that they just might be able to get their lives back following a year of fear and uncertainty they both described as a nightmare.

Gomez said the jury pronounced her innocent first but she could not celebrate until she was sure her friend and co-worker was also found not guilty.

"It was the happiest day of my life," said Gomez. "I knew I was innocent and Jody was innocent, but I had to wait to hear we were both innocent until I jumped up and down."

Salinas was also happy with the jury's verdict, which was handed down on Friday in the Federal Courthouse in Springfield, but those feelings quickly turned from joy to anger.

"Of course we were happy, but I was also angry that I was put through so much," said Salinas. "It was a nightmare."

Looking back

The "bad dream" began on Oct. 16, 2007, a date both Salinas and Gomez have no trouble remembering.

On that day, the federal government issued arrest warrants for them both, accusing the women of harboring illegal aliens while performing their duties as members of the human resources department at George's poultry processing plant in Butterfield.

The indictments came five months after officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, descended upon the George's plant in Butterfield and arrested over 130 individuals. In the end, only about 35 of these individuals were actually detained by the federal government and only 12 were charged with federal crimes that ranged from Social Security fraud to re-entering the United States after being deported.

The initial raid made headlines, and then in October of 2007, the U.S. Attorney's Office held another big press conference to announce the subsequent arrest of eight George's employees.

Salinas and Gomez were charged with harboring illegal aliens for commercial advantage or private financial gains, aiding and abetting others to encourage illegal aliens to enter or reside in the United States and aiding and abetting aggravated identity thefts. In simple terms, the women were accused of helping illegal aliens use false identification to represent themselves as U.S. citizens and get hired on at George's.

Those indicted were described as "supervisors" by the U.S. Attorney's Office. Salinas served as the day supervisor for the plant's human resources department, and Gomez was a receptionist.

"I was so confused," said Gomez. "I am a receptionist. Why am I being charged? At that point, you don't even know the charges.

"Your life changes 360 degrees," said Gomez. "The government is the one attacking you, and that's your fear. You know you didn't do anything but the government agents have all the tools.

"This was all like a bad dream," said Gomez. "I have two children, ages 10 and 11. They were scared they were going to lose their mother. We just couldn't believe it."

Gomez said her job as receptionist involved providing an application, telling applicants about openings and pay rates, asking for identification and then making a copy of that identification.

Salinas, who has worked at George's for 13 and a half years, said part of her job in hiring workers was to check the applicant's documentation. She said everyone who George's employs is run through a computer station that is linked to the Social Security Administration and Immigration.

"These applicants were all e-verified," said Salinas. "The government is who employment-authorized all these people.

"I truly didn't understand what I had done wrong," said Salinas. "I was stunned. We were doing everything the law would allow us to do to keep us from getting sued for discrimination."

As Salinas explained, federal law mandates that employers accept an applicant's identification at face value.

"If they provide us with valid documents, we can't ask them if they are a citizen or where they were born, because that's considered discrimination," said Salinas.

Testimony provided at last week's trial revealed that all of the documentation gathered on those employees who were found to be illegals was government-issued documentation.

"We didn't have one set of fraudulent documents," said Salinas.

Gomez said it became very clear during the trial that the government had no real evidence.

"They just had words," said Gomez.

A united defense

Salinas was represented by Cassville attorneys John Lewright and Robert Foulke, and Gomez was represented by Monett attorney Don Trotter. The attorneys were retained by George's, who stood behind both women throughout their arrest and subsequent trial.

"We could not have asked for better representation," said Salinas. "Everyone worked together."

Gomez said she was impressed by the fact that the attorneys seemed to take the case personally.

"They put their heart into it and did more than they were supposed to do," said Gomez. "They were wonderful."

When asked about the role George's played in their arrests, Salinas and Gomez are quick to state that George's is not to blame for their legal woes.

"It's not the company's fault," said Salinas. "We are using the tools the government gave us to use to ensure we have a legal workforce, and it's not working. It did not keep the company or us out of trouble."

Abuse of power

A broken system is how Trotter describes the federal government's conflicting discrimination and immigration laws that were brought to light during the trial.

"The biggest problem I see is one side doesn't know what the other side is doing," said Trotter. "You have the prosecution side that says if you don't ask questions we're going to prosecute you, and the other group says if you ask the questions we're going to sue you.

"Everyone laughs and says how screwed up our government is, but in the meantime, people like Hilda and Jody are caught in the middle and get hurt."

Trotter said his defense of Gomez was straight forward.

"Our defense was she did her job, she did what she was told to do, and at no time did she have actual knowledge that anyone was illegal," said Trotter.

Federal prosecutors argued that both Gomez and Salinas should have known that the people they were hiring were illegal.

"Everybody at George's should have known so everyone was guilty," said Trotter. "It was the most absurd prosecution I've ever seen."

Lewright said the prosecution's case against Salina hinged on their claim that she "looked the other way" when making hiring decisions.

"We were able to prove that she never looked the other way," said Lewright. "When there were facts presented to her she followed the law or brought the information to the attention of those higher than her in the chain of command."

Lewright said he and Foulke were also able to bring into question the testimony of the government's witnesses. The prosecution relied on the testimony of several illegal aliens who were arrested in the May 2007 immigration raid on George's.

In particular, Lewright said they focused on the testimony of Leopoldo Hernandez-Alcon, a Guatemalan who claimed Gomez and Salinas knew he was illegal but hired him anyway.

"He had six different aliases and changed his story numerous times," said Lewright. "It was obvious that the government had to see that the truth was just not in this guy, but the government continued to endorse this witness and the theory of the girls' crime changed with his story."

The acquittals proved that the jury wasn't buying the testimony of the government witnesses either.

"We were able to prove that Jody did her job and followed the law, and in the process, we were able to heavily impeach their witnesses," said Lewright.

Both attorneys believed that Gomez and Salinas were arrested in the hopes that they would "tell on" some of those "higher up" in the company in exchange for a lighter sentence or the promise of no prison time.

"It was the biggest abuse of power I've seen," said Trotter. "America should be ashamed that the federal government could do something like this. They were trying to strong arm them, and our clients weren't willing to lie."

Life after acquittal

Salinas and Gomez were not the only ones who celebrated last Friday's acquittal. Members of the jury lined up outside of the courtroom in Springfield and waited to hug each of the women.

"The jurors were crying and hugging and kissing us," said Salinas. "They told us they were sorry we had to go through this nightmare."

Trotter said last week's jury verdict was a relief.

"I was ecstatic," said Trotter. "This had weighed very heavy on my mind, and I was relieved to know Hilda was going to go home to her children."

Lewright said he was overcome with emotion after the verdicts were read.

"I cried too in a sense of relief for an innocent person who no longer has to face these charges," said Lewright.

George's gave both Salinas and Gomez a week off from work following the trial. On Monday, the two women started their week of vacation together, baking strawberry cheesecake pies for their attorneys.

Salinas and Gomez said they don't really have any big plans for the week besides spending time with their families.

"We are happy, and we're going to celebrate for the rest of our lives," said Gomez.

No comment

The U.S. Attorney's Office had "no comment" when asked about last week's acquittal. They also would not respond to questions about whether or not charges would be dropped against several other George's employees who were arrested along with Gomez and Salinas last October.

If the women had been convicted of the three counts against them, they would have faced a minimum sentence of two years in a federal prison.

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