New York (CNN) -- Federal officers on Thursday arrested 23 people suspected of smuggling up to 70 men from China to work in Chinese restaurants in and around New York City.
"We allege that this was a for-profit smuggling scheme," said Jim Hayes, Immigration and Custom Enforcement special agent in charge of the investigation.
He told CNN that the men were brought into the United States by business owners and illegal recruiters, who would get families to pay a fee of up to $75,000 each.
"The employment agency would arrange for them to be brought into the United States and the restaurant owners would harbor them and transport them after engaging the employment agency to get the type of worker they desired," he said.
None of the illegal workers was arrested, Hayes said.
"Were working through that group of people to determine who were knowing participants, who may have been exploited, who may have desired to leave and weren't allowed to leave," he said.
The investigation found instances in which workers were paid as little as $3 an hour and were forced to live in sub-par living conditions in Connecticut, New Jersey and on New York's Long Island, he said.
"Many of these aliens were housed in squalid conditions and unsanitary conditions, certainly conditions they were not desiring to live in." he said.
The ongoing eight-month investigation is part of a new initiative by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to target employers of illegal aliens rather than the workers.
"It's different in that we are looking to eliminate the magnet that draws the workers as opposed to focusing on the employees themselves," Hayes said.
The status of the workers remains uncertain. Some will be witnesses, which could lead to benefits for them, and some may face deportation. All of them, according to Hayes, did not get what they came to the United States for.
"They believed they were coming over for the American Dream, but the fact of the matter is, whether their families paid it or not, that $75,000 is not something they are going to be able to pay off in their natural lifetime," he said.
"It's certainly much, much less than they bargained for."
Three additional suspects remain at large, according to a statement released Thursday afternoon by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office.
CNN's Deborah Feyerick contributed to this report.