HONOLULU – Two prominent, popular brothers who operate the second-largest vegetable farm in Hawaii will be sentenced in federal court this week on human trafficking charges -- they pleaded guilty -- but two former state governors, community groups, fellow farmers and other supporters are trying to keep them out of prison.
The brothers were convicted of shipping 44 laborers from Thailand and forcing them to work on their farm, part of a pipeline to the United States that allegedly cornered foreign field hands into low-paying jobs with few rights.
Aloun Farms may be too important to fail in an island state that once relied on pineapples and sugar cane but grows less than 15 percent of the food it consumes, according to supporters of defendants Alec and Mike Sou.
"The incarceration of Alec and Mike Sou would threaten our food security and could endanger our future sustainability on Oahu," wrote Kioni Dudley, president of the community group Friends of Makakilo, in a letter asking U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway for leniency. "Find some method of punishment which allows them to stay in their positions at Aloun Farms."
The Sou brothers are asking for a light sentence with little or no jail time based in part on the idea that their farm is too valuable to the islands' food supply to let it go untended. The plea deal they agreed to in January called for up to five years imprisonment.
Prosecutors accuse them of manipulating the Thai workers by promising at least a year's employment at pay of $9.42 an hour, but instead delivering only a few months of work for little pay.
If the workers complained, Mike Sou threatened to send them home without any way to repay recruitment fees exceeding $30,000 that they borrowed from Thai money lenders to pay for their jobs, federal authorities claim.
The workers were trapped on the farm, forced to choose between long hours with low wages and an unpromising future in Thailand, said former farm worker Somporn Khanja, who arrived at the farm in 2004.
"I'd been lied to, but I couldn't do anything about it," the 45-year-old Khanja said through his wife, acting as an interpreter. "I hope justice is being done. I believe in American law. It takes so long, but it's good. In America, we have to wait."
In about 120 letters to the judge supporting the Sou brothers, community members praise their importance to Hawaii's agriculture industry, their ability to provide up to 200 jobs at a time and their character.
Former Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano called the Sou family's immigration from Laos and creation of a farm a "remarkable success story." Former Democratic Gov. John Waihee commended the Sous' skill in transforming sugar fields into diversified farming.
Others who offered support to the brothers include the former head of the state Land Board, the state Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Foodbank, competing farms, two banks who are owed money from the farms and former Aloun employees.
The Kapolei-based company grows a variety of foods including cantaloupe, lettuce, zucchini, apples, bananas, parsley, onions, watermelon, beans, eggplant, cabbage and pumpkin. Alec Sou is the farm's president and general manager, and Ms of Los Angeles-based labor recruiting company Global Horizons Manpower Inc., which the FBI says is the largest human trafficking case ever charged in U.S. history.
Global Horizons is accused of enticing 400 workers from Thailand to U.S. farms based on false promises of lucrative jobs. Instead, recruiters allegedly confiscated the workers' passports, disregarded employment contracts and threatened deportation -- claims similar to those in the Aloun Farms case.
Nationwide, between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked to the United States annually, according to an estimate by HumanTrafficking.org, which is managed by the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development, which works to improve global education, health and social and economic development.
The brothers have steadily grown in prominence since their parents started the farm in 1977. After starting with a small 5-acre plot of land, the Sous have since extended their growing capacity and crops.
Today, the farm's 3,000 acres are the most productive in the islands. In Hawaii's mild climate, they grow crops year-round.
The Sou family also has made political contributions, and Alec Sou sits on boards for homeless advocates and for the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.