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Fatal house fire raises red flags about human smuggling

Five undocumented workers from Kim's Garden were living in the basement of the owner's home when they were killed in a house fire.
Sarah Cwiek
/
Michigan Radio
Five undocumented workers from Kim's Garden were living in the basement of the owner's home when they were killed in a house fire.

In January of 2016, a house fire killed five young men in the basement of a Novi home owned by Roger Tam and Ada Lei. They were later found to be undocumented workers from Mexico who were living there while employed at the couple's Chinese restaurant, Kim's Garden.

Tam is a naturalized American citizen from Hong Kong and, along with Lei, are facing federal charges of "harboring undocumented immigrants for commercial gain."

Tam's defense attorney claims that he paid them a "very fair wage," and that living in the home was not a condition of employment, but rather, something Tam was doing to help the workers. His lawyer says Tam "treated them like family."

However, others see many red flags in the case that has led to a broader investigation into human smuggling. How the five young men came into the country and how they were connected to Tam is yet to be determined as the government is pushing to find answers and prosecute this case. 

Bridgette Carr from the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan would like to see prosecutors put forth the same effort of cracking down on "labor trafficking" as they do for more high-profile cases that often involve sex trafficking or a fatal situation like the Tam case. 

"I have been extremely frustrated with our absolute inability to get prosecutors interested in labor trafficking cases," said Carr.

The Tam case remains in court, but this tragic story brings some important questions to light. Undocumented workers live and work in the shadows and contribute so much to the United States' economy, but there is very little to protect them.

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