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Patrick Springer, Published December 17 2008

Pleas entered in illegal worker case, fast ongoing to support jailed workers

UPDATED 4:12 p.m.

FARGO – Seven of the 23 workers from India accused of violating immigration laws entered guilty pleas this afternoon to knowingly possess-ing counterfeit Social Security cards.

All seven workers were given sentences that were deemed served by the more than 50 days they’ve spent in jail pending resolution of their cases.

A second group of seven workers also appeared Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Fargo, and the remaining nine are scheduled for change-of-plea hearings Tuesday.

The defendants who have pleaded guilty are being turned over the U.S. Border Patrol for possible deporta-tion proceedings in the Twin Cities.

Wednesday’s court action coincided with a fast in support of the 23 workers, all of whom claim they are victims of a human trafficking scheme, and subjected to forced labor and indentured servitude before they came to North Dakota to work on an ethanol plant near Casselton.

Rep. Keith Ellison, a congressman who represents the Minneapolis district, and a Lutheran bishop in Minnesota are among supporters who will be fasting on behalf of the workers from India, who have been held in the Cass County Jail.

The fast began at 2 p.m. today, and will continue for 24 hours to call attention to the workers.

The workers, all welders or pipe fitters, were arrested in a sweep led by agents of U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement in late October.

“I join my friends in the faith community in solidarity with the survivors of trafficking detained by ICE,” Ellison said in a statement.

Almost 30 pastors have joined the fast, including Lutheran Bishop Craig John-son.

Lawyers involved in the case said little Tuesday about the plea change, except to confirm the defense had requested the hearings.

Defendants who plead guilty to immigration charges typically draw sentences of up to six months, Chase said. Many are given sentences equal to time served in jail awaiting trial, then turned over for civil deportation proceedings.

So far, the defendants have served about two months.

The defendants have said they paid $20,000 to recruiters with the understanding they would gain resident alien status to allow them to work legally at length.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the allegations of human trafficking, made in a civil lawsuit pending in New Orleans. Members of Congress have asked that the workers be allowed to remain legally in the country pending the outcome of the investigation.

U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley has said he knew about the Justice Department’s investigation when he authorized the filing of charges against the 23 defendants.