HONG KONG (REUTERS) - The head of a contractor working on a huge casino resort on a US-administered Pacific island was charged this week with illegally importing and employing Chinese workers, including one who died in March, court documents show.
The charges came days before US President Donald Trump, who put a crackdown on illegal immigration at the forefront of his campaign promises, faces his biggest test as a world leader when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida.
Cash strapped and desperate for revenue, the lush, mountainous island of Saipan, part of the Northern Mariana Islands and controlled by the United States since the end of World War Two, approved a casino in 2014, after which Chinese investment has skyrocketed.
Imperial Pacific, the owner of the multi-billion Saipan gaming project, has wildly outperformed the top casinos in the Chinese-run gambling hub of Macau, despite China's crackdown on capital flight. Chinese signs and businesses have mushroomed across the island.
The casino opened on Friday, but the attached resort remains unfinished, with construction equipment strewn across the workspace, according to photos seen by Reuters.
In a complaint made by the FBI to the Northern Mariana Islands District Court on Monday, Lu Hui, president of Beilida Overseas (CNMI) Ltd, a contractor of Imperial, was charged with "unlawful employment of aliens" and "bringing in and harbouring certain aliens".
During a search of Beilida's office, the FBI said it found a list of more than 150 workers called "hei gong", the Chinese term for an undocumented worker, as well as a safe containing several thousand dollars in US currency, several hundred Chinese yuan as well as employee pay stubs.
Imperial Pacific said in an e-mail to Reuters that none of its employees had been arrested and that it would ensure compliance with federal and local laws.
"Imperial Pacific has paid construction contractors requisite fees for processing needed applications for workers to work on the construction problems," it said.
Headed by Ji Xiaobo, a one-time middleman whose company brought players to Macau, Imperial employs more than 2,000 construction workers via its contractors and is aiming to open the resort in the second half of this year.
The workers have been housed in barracks and bused into the construction site every day.
Hu Yuanyou, 43, the worker who died, had entered the United States as a tourist on March 7. His visa expired on March 17 and he was not authorised to work in the United States and/or the Northern Marianas, according to the FBI filing. It did not give details of how he died.
But there have been more than 100 work-site injuries in the past year such as fractures and crushings, with a surge since September, volunteers helping the injured told Reuters.
"We have really never seen anything like this. It is kind of mind boggling that these injuries are coming from the construction site," said one who did not want to give her name due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Local legislator Ed Propst said there were 1,035 Chinese "tourists" on the island who overstayed since the start of this year.