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Jacksonville restaurant owners plead guilty to harboring undocumented workers

Red Bowl restaurant at 12553 Bartram Park Blvd in Jacksonville.
Red Bowl restaurant at 12553 Bartram Park Blvd in Jacksonville. (Copyright 2020 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A husband and wife who live in Palm Coast have pleaded guilty to federal charges related to their employment of “undocumented aliens” at their restaurants in Palm Coast and Jacksonville.

Ji Qiu and his wife Gui Yang, who are both from China and lawful permanent residents of the U.S., owned and operated the Red Bowl restaurant on Bartram Park Boulevard in Jacksonville, the Red Bowl Poké & Hibachi restaurant on Crosshill Boulevard in Jacksonville, and the Fancy Sushi & Grill restaurant on East Highway 100 in Palm Coast.

Qiu pleaded guilty to harboring undocumented aliens for commercial advantage and private financial gain and faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.

Yang pleaded guilty to establishing a commercial enterprise for the purpose of evading United States Immigration laws and she faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.

As part of his plea agreement, Qiu agreed to forfeit a residence in Palm Coast, a 2013 Toyota Sienna van, a 2019 Honda Odyssey van, and a 2020 Honda Odyssey van. A sentencing date has not yet been scheduled.

Qiu and Yang were indicted on Sept. 14, 2020.

According to court documents, starting in early 2019, federal agents saw vans carrying people who appeared to be employees, between the restaurants and houses located near the restaurants. Agents recorded video on multiple occasions, according to a complaint.

Federal agents said some of the workers were in the country legally but others were not. Agents identified several who were from Guatemala and in the country illegally.

Investigators searched two homes located near the restaurants and found makeshift bedrooms. At the Palm Coast house, they found no flooring in the house and some bedrooms didn’t have mattresses.

At a home in Bartram Springs, some rooms had mattresses, one had just fold-out cots with very few sheets and the home was made to accommodate a large group of people.

One of the employees told investigators he was never asked by the restaurant owners to show his “papers” when he was hired. The employee said he was paid $2,300 a month in cash for working as a sushi chef at Red Bowl six days a week for 11 hours a day.

He said he received food, housing and transportation and does not pay anything for rent or utilities.

The citizens of Guatemala in the country illegally, one of which is 19 years old, will wither be deported or released pending immigration proceedings.