The owners of a Chinese restaurant in Michigan have pleaded guilty to harbouring five illegal immigrant staff members who died in a basement fire at a house in suburban Detroit.
Roger Tam and wife Ada Mei Lei said Wednesday they knew a teenager and four young men from Mexico were in the US illegally. But they insist they shouldn’t be held responsible for their deaths a year ago.
That issue will be critical when they’re sentenced on June 13. If a judge finds they’re responsible, Tam and Lei could face years in prison.
“It’s going to be a vigorous fight with the government,” said defence attorney Ray Cassar, who called the deaths a “tragic accident”.
“These were immigrants helping other immigrants,” he said, noting that Tam and Lei are naturalised US citizens from China. “Mr Tam cared a great deal about these people. This is not a case where a bus tipped over or a boat sank or he put them in a rat-infested hotel that collapsed.”
The January 2016 fire occurred in the comfortable neighbourhood of Novi. Investigators say the victims likely were overcome by smoke and couldn’t get up the stairs and out of the basement. Windows were made of glass block. The fire has been linked to careless smoking.
“The United States will seek a sentencing enhancement for creating a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to reflect the seriousness of the offence,” US Attorney Barbara McQuade said in a written statement.
Tam, 56, and Lei, 49, answered a series of yes-or-no questions in court Wednesday. Tam regularly drove the five between the restaurant and the house, which he owned. They were paid cash while working at Kim’s Garden.
“Nobody wants to do that kind of work,” Cassar said.