A Bartow County businessman accused of harboring unauthorized immigrant workers for his construction company pleaded not guilty to immigration and weapons charges in federal court here Monday.
Shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing a blue prison uniform, Mexican national Juan Antonio Perez, 46, quietly conferred with his attorney during the hearing, nervously tapped his toes and politely answered the judge’s questions with “yes, sir.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Wayne Johnson rejected Perez’s request to be released on bond pending his trial, siding with prosecutors who alleged he is a flight risk. Johnson noted that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued papers to take custody of Perez, meaning he could face deportation before his trial.
“I do not want to risk losing this defendant into the immigration system,” Johnson said.
RELATED: Grand jury indicts Bartow businessman on immigration, weapons charges
Last week, a federal grand jury indicted Perez on charges of harboring unauthorized immigrants for financial gain and possessing 14 firearms — including pistols and shotguns — while being in the country illegally. Both are felonies that each carry up to 10 years in prison. His next court hearing is set for May 28.
Federal prosecutors alleged at a news conference last week that Perez entered the country illegally from Mexico 27 years ago and has lived in a guarded 7,543-square-foot compound in rural Rydal. He made millions of dollars, the prosecutors said, through the residential construction company he created, Aztec Framing, and by underpaying his unauthorized immigrant employees and failing to withhold taxes for them.
In arguing to keep him locked up, a federal prosecutor indicated to the judge Monday that Perez has plenty of resources he could use to flee the country. The government, she said, has seized $700,000 in cash from a safe in Perez’s home and $1 million from one of his bank accounts. He has also accumulated seven homes and offices and more than 50 vehicles during his time in the U.S.she added.
Perez’s attorney, Christopher Twyman, argued for his release, saying he has many reasons to remain in the U.S., including his family and business. Aztec Framing is still operating, Twyman said, its workers are documented and taxes have been paid for them. He added that Perez was brought to America by a relative when he was 14, has never left this country, has no prior criminal convictions and has paid federal individual income taxes for at least the past 15 years.
Additionally, Twyman said, Perez is married with four children, three of whom are still attending school. The attorney referred to the more than three dozen relatives and friends who showed up at Monday’s court hearing in support of Perez. One of them openly wept when she saw Perez led into the courtroom.
“He has strong ties to this community,” Twyman told the judge. “I think the government can find he is not a flight risk at this time.”
As Perez was led out of the courtroom Monday, he turned toward his supporters, smiled and pointed his index finger upward.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.