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Owner of several Milwaukee gas stations accused of forcing Indian woman to work pleads guilty to federal charge

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Harshinder Bhatia

MILWAUKEE — The owner of several Milwaukee-area gas stations, accused of forcing and threatening an Indian woman to work between September of 2009 and April of 2011 has reached a plea deal in the federal case against him.

According to federal court documents, Harshinder Bhatia agreed to plead guilty to a federal charge of “harboring an alien for financial gain,” the first count in a three-count indictment. The remaining two counts were dismissed as a result of the plea deal.

The charge carries a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years, up to a $250,000 fine, a mandatory special assessment of $100 and a maximum of three years of supervised release.

This case was investigated by members of the Federal Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes special agents and detectives from the following agencies:

  • U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement’s (ICE)
  • Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)
  • FBI
  • Department of Labor
  • Milwaukee Police Department

The indictment says the victim in this case traveled to the U.S. with family in 2007 for a wedding in New York — staying there for five or six months before returning to India. At that point, the victim’s father began looking for a way to move the family to the U.S. permanently. He met Bhatia’s brother in India, who indicated if he was willing to work in one of Bhatia’s gas stations, “he could arrange it.”

In March of 2009, the victim, the victim’s father and the victim’s younger brother flew to Chicago on tourist visas. The victim was a few days away from turning 18 at this point, and the family was limited by their I-94 forms to remain in the U.S. only until September 2009.

They were picked up at the airport by Bhatia, and taken to a duplex near 64th and Villard — where the victim lived until April 2011.

She and her father began working for Bhatia at different gas stations shortly after their arrival. Federal court documents indicate he did not have them complete any employment-related paperwork, and he was aware they didn’t have authorization to work in the U.S.

The indictment says Bhatia had other undocumented Indian workers who worked for him, and they were paid in cash. They were not listed in his quarterly wage reports to the state of Wisconsin and he did not withhold taxes for their pay, nor did he pay them overtime, though they were required to work overtime regularly — with the victim and her father working eight to 12 hours each day, seven days per week, without breaks. Her 15-year-old brother did odd jobs around the gas station and attended school.

After several months, the indictment says Bhatia reminded the victim’s father that the visa was going to expire soon and he would need to head back to India. The father left the victim and her brother in the U.S. so the brother could continue going to school and the victim could work. The indictment says the victim worked for Bhatia 12 hours per day for seven days per week for two years, and they had “no choice” but to live in the housing Bhatia provided because they had no money or wherewithal to go elsewhere.

The indictment notes that sometimes, Bhatia would fail to pay the power bill — so they were without lights and power for “a day or two” at the duplex.

Federal prosecutors say Bhatia “physically and emotionally threatened” the woman — causing her to believe if she didn’t perform this labor she would suffer serious harm. The indictment charges that this crime involved aggravated sexual abuse and was furthered by Bhatia possessing the victim’s passport.

 

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