BREWER, Maine — Local police and agents from the federal government raided Chinese buffet restaurants in Brewer, Lewiston, Waterville and the Portland area on Wednesday, shutting at least four of them down temporarily.
They also made unannounced visits to two residences in Brewer, one on Elm Street and one on Wilson Street, according to an area law enforcement official who assisted in the operation there.
Authorities took four people described as “immigrants” into custody as a result of raids in Portland and Westbrook, according to the Portland Press Herald. The four were being held at Cumberland County Jail, a jail official confirmed.
Their names, addresses and charges were not available, nor would jail officials say where they were taken into custody, the Portland newspaper reported Wednesday night.
One of the houses raided in Brewer, located at 287 Elm St., now is the subject of a forfeiture complaint. Federal authorities are seeking to seize the property because they believe the owners — members of the “Zhang Operation” — used the property as a “safe house” for Asian and Hispanic illegal aliens, according to an 18-page complaint filed late Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Portland.
The Zhang Operation also is believed to have engaged in money laundering though its buffet restaurant operations in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the complaint said.
As of early Wednesday evening, none of the other raided properties had been the subject of forfeiture complaints. There also was no word of arrests or charges in connection with the raids.
Though little information was being released about the raids — which were conducted at Twin Super Buffet in Brewer, Super China Buffet in Waterville and New China Buffet in Lewiston — witnesses reported seeing agents from U.S. Immigrations, Customs and Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and local police officers at the surprise entries.
Spokesmen for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they were not authorized to release information about the incidents and referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Clark said Wednesday afternoon that he could not comment on whether an investigation was under way or if anyone had been charged or taken into custody.
In the complaint filed later in the afternoon, however, federal prosecutors cited the harboring, hiring and transportation of illegal aliens and illegal financial activities as probable cause for the forfeiture.
Court documents show that the Zhang Organization has been the focus of an investigation involving agents from the Department of Homeland Security and other federal and state agencies that dates back as far as 2006.
Zi Qian Zhang, his wife, Ai Hui Lu, who is owner of record of the house on Elm Street, and others in the organization reportedly use illegal aliens as cheap labor in Chinese buffet restaurants, where customers often pay in cash because of low prices, according to the federal complaint.
The workers are paid $7 to $10 an hour, sometimes are required to work 70 hours a week and receive no overtime pay or benefits, the complaint said. The organization reportedly housed many of the restaurant’s employees in “safe houses” funded with the proceeds of irregular illegal activity. Court documents say the aliens were “tightly quartered” in conditions described as “squalid” and “deplorable.” Some were living in the garage.
Members of the family organization allegedly did not withhold income taxes from employees or maintain required employee records. They also reportedly falsified income and business documents.
The buffet restaurants in Brewer and Lewiston both were open again by late Wednesday afternoon. An employee who answered the telephone at the Super China Buffet in Waterville said the business would reopen Thursday but declined to identify himself or comment on what agents were looking for.
An employee at Kon Asian Bistro on Brighton Avenue in Portland, one place where vehicles from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were seen, wouldn’t say whether immigration agents had been at the restaurant or made arrests there, according to the Press Herald. The restaurant, which was closed for a time, reopened Wednesday evening.
City tax records indicate that the Brewer restaurant is owned by Twin Super Buffet Inc. of New York City, Brewer Assessor Mary Lynne Hunter said Wednesday.
Efforts to reach Mei Ya Zhang, who was listed as the operation’s manager, were unsuccessful Wednesday afternoon. A woman who answered the telephone at the number provided to the city said no one by that name was at that number and that the number belonged to an accounting business.
The address of the residence on Wilson Street that authorities visited in Brewer was not immediately available.
The Sun Journal contributed to this report.