A Huntington man was sentenced Wednesday to six years in federal prison after he admitted to forcing Filipino immigrants to work for free at a Centerport restaurant under the threat of deportation.
Roberto Villanueva, 65, who has been jailed since his arrest in 2017, had pleaded guilty to forced labor and forced labor conspiracy in February 2020 before U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert at Central Islip federal court.
“Villanueva exploited his victims’ immigration status, promising them the American dream, but instead threatening arrest or deportation if they didn’t work 16 hours a day, often unpaid, sleeping on bug infested mattresses covered in garbage bags, without heat or hot water,” said Breon Peace, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
Villanueva, who formerly worked as a recruiter and manager for the Thatched Cottage, admitted during his plea hearing that workers were brought from the Philippines to the U.S. on H-2B visas that expired shortly after their arrival, when he coached workers how to apply for student visas by fraudulently stating that they planned to attend school full-time, prosecutors said. When workers objected to performing certain jobs, working consecutive shifts or not being paid promptly, Villanueva threatened to report them to the police or immigration authorities, according to investigators.
“Villanueva knowingly manipulated these workers using bait-and-switch tactics to coerce and control them, forcing them to live in squalid conditions with a constant threat of physical harm if they failed to comply with his ever-escalating demands,” said Michael Alfonso, Acting Special Agent-in-Charge of the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York office. “HSI is committed to working together with our partners to fight human trafficking in all its forms, including labor trafficking and exploitation to prevent abuses like this.”
Villanueva said that his actions were done in cooperation with Ralph Colamussi, the former owner of Thatched Cottage who pleaded guilty in the case in 2020.