Contractor accused of trafficking unauthorized workers faces trial

Case of Ricardo Batres marks the first time Hennepin County has charged someone with labor trafficking

Mike Freeman stands at a podium with a microphone.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman speaks at a press conference inside the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis in August.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A Crystal man facing rare labor-trafficking charges is set to go on trial Monday in Hennepin County District Court.

Prosecutors say Ricardo Ernesto Batres, 47, exploited construction workers, denied them health coverage and workers’ compensation, and forced them to live in overcrowded housing with no hot water.

The construction workers did not have authorization to be in the country, and when they objected to their work conditions, Batres reported them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the criminal complaint.

“They threatened to leave,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said when he announced charges in September 2018. “Several days later, when they left to go to work, ICE agents were waiting outside their door and picked them up.”

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Labor-trafficking cases are rarely prosecuted in Minnesota, in part because they are difficult to prove. But Hennepin County prosecutors say they worked with Latino community leaders to help gather evidence.

The statute also took effect in 2005. According to the Minnesota Court Administrator’s Office, state prosecutors filed nine labor-trafficking charges over the past decade, including the charges against Batres. His case marks the first time Hennepin County has ever prosecuted someone under the statute.

Batres also faces theft by swindle and insurance fraud.

According to the criminal complaint, he registered his company, American Contractors and Associates, with the Secretary of State in 2008 and obtained a residential contractor license. The company provided construction work throughout Hennepin County and the region. He had more than a dozen workers during the summer of 2017.

“Defendant knowingly recruited and hired undocumented workers because doing so allowed him to make profit for himself at the expense of his workers’ safety and well-being,” the complaint said.

The complaint goes on to say that when employees were injured on the job, Batres told them not to seek medical care or report their injuries and threatened to fire them and report them to immigration authorities.

In July of 2017, as a group of Batres’ workers left their Bloomington house, they were confronted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The complaint said several of the men were quickly deported, and others remained in custody. One of the men was released on bond, but it was Batres who paid to get him out of custody, according to the charges. He later used the favor against the employee and forced him to work to pay off his debt.

In another instance, an employee was seriously injured after a prefabricated wall fell on top of him. The complaint says Batres acted as an interpreter and lied to hospital staff about how he sustained the injuries to avoid a workers’ compensation claim. Batres allegedly told the employee that he should go along with the story or risk deportation.

Batres’ attorney, Fred Bruno, has not responded to an interview request.