Federal authorities raided a House of Raeford Farms plant Tuesday, detaining more than 300 workers believed to be in the country illegally and searching for evidence of unlawful hiring practices.
Just before 9 a.m., during a shift change at the sprawling chicken processing plant, about 100 immigration agents fanned through the building, sending fearful workers fleeing.
It was the largest immigration raid ever conducted in the Carolinas. It came after authorities determined that 777 of 825 workers at the plant had apparently submitted false documents to get their jobs.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they'll continue their long-running investigation to determine who allowed illegal immigrants to work at the plant, known locally as Columbia Farms. Investigating the employers, they said, is as large a priority as identifying illegal workers.
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The detained employees will be questioned about the company's hiring procedures, authorities said, and may be deported. Investigators will ask workers how they were paid, whether they knew anything about hiring practices and whether anyone at the company offered them false documents.
It's not yet clear whether the investigation will result in additional charges against high-ranking company officials, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald. “We'll review the documents and make these sorts of decisions at a later date,” he said.
In a February series about working conditions in the poultry industry, five current and former supervisors told the Observer that some House of Raeford managers knew they employed illegal immigrants. They said the plant prefers undocumented workers because they are less likely to question working conditions for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.
In a statement Tuesday night, House of Raeford denied knowingly hiring illegal workers. Federal law, the company said, requires it to accept documents that appear to be valid, and to be sensitive to nondiscrimination laws.
“We share the government's goal of eliminating the hiring or employment of unauthorized workers, and will terminate any and all of the employees who were taken into custody or have engaged in similar misconduct,” the company said.
N.C.-based House of Raeford is one of the nation's top chicken and turkey producers, with eight processing plants in the Southeast and about 6,000 employees.
Kenneth Smith, an ICE special agent, said the agency is focusing on the employers because “the promise of employment draws illegal workers across our borders.”
Work at the Greenville plant has been temporarily suspended, according to ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez. The company said it is shifting some production to other plants to fill customer orders.
Authorities are attempting to help those who've been detained with child care and other “humanitarian concerns,” Gonzalez said.
Federal officials said at least 58 of the arrested workers will be released for humanitarian reasons. They'll still be required to appear before a federal immigration judge who will determine whether they're deported.
A radio call then panic
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Buses carrying federal agents pulled up at the plant shortly before the raid, and a mechanic who saw them notified other workers by radio, according to a former supervisor.
Company officials did nothing to impede ICE agents, McDonald said. When agents arrived, they ordered all workers at the plant to show identification.
Panicked workers called family members from plant bathrooms, relatives said.
Plant janitor Herbert Rooker, 54, said he saw screaming workers run through the halls after agents arrived.
“I saw tears falling out of some of their eyes,” he said. “I realized what was going on then.”
Authorities also obtained a search warrant authorizing them to seize an array of records from the plant, including bank checks, payroll documents and hiring records. They're also authorized to seize computers, BlackBerrys and other electronic storage devices.
Investigators had previously gained information that many of the plant's employees had submitted bogus documents to prove they were eligible to work in the U.S., according to an affidavit that accompanied the search warrant.
Many of the eligibility documents listed in company records either didn't exist or didn't match the names of employees, the affidavit states. Some of the Social Security numbers presented by workers actually belonged to victims of identity theft, the affidavit states.
Raeford managers await trial
Over the summer, ICE arrested 11 plant supervisors at their homes and charged them with immigration violations.
Seven plant supervisors have pleaded guilty to using false Social Security numbers or alien registration numbers. Two are awaiting trial and two more are considered fugitives.
The plant's human resources director, Elaine Crump, was arrested in July. She was indicted on 20 felony counts charging that she instructed employees to use fraudulent employment eligibility forms. She is expected in court later this month.
Authorities allege Crump instructed human resource employees to use previously signed employment verification documents for new hires. Crump knew that the company official who had signed the verification papers could not have witnessed whether immigrant job applicants provided the required documentation, the indictment states. That's because the company official was no longer working at the plant.
Since the initial arrests in June, dozens of workers have left their jobs. The company has been hiring fewer Latinos and has turned to state prisons to fill its production lines.
The Greenville raid is the latest in a series of immigration crackdowns. In August, authorities rounded up more than 600 suspected illegal immigrants at a Mississippi transformer plant – the largest single workplace immigration raid in U.S. history.
And in May, federal immigration officials swept into Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, in Iowa. Nearly 400 workers were detained, and plant managers were charged with hiring minors and having them perform dangerous work.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond with expertise in the federal courts, said immigrations officials must believe that all the large raids will deter employers from hiring illegal immigrants.
“To some extent, this is just a substitute for having a better immigration policy,” he said.