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Immigration arrests have poultry workers afraid to go to jobs

House of Raeford turns to inmates to fill vacant positions as production levels slip.

By Franco Ordoñez
fordonez@charlotteobserver.com

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. Every day Sergio leaves for work at the House of Raeford Farms poultry plant he wonders whether he'll be arrested.

It's a matter of time, he believes, before immigration agents raid the plant.

Smoking a cigarette on his porch, the 40-year-old undocumented poultry worker from Mexico speaks nervously. He says there's a growing concern among workers that immigration agents will target the West Columbia plant once they finish investigating the company's Greenville plant, less than 100 miles away.

This summer's arrests of 11 House of Raeford workers in Greenville shocked its S.C. workforce.

Dozens of workers have since left their jobs. The company is hiring fewer, if any, Latinos and has turned to state prisons to fill its production lines.

The undocumented workers who remain often skip work if they see an unfamiliar truck parked outside. Inside, they scan the doors waiting for federal agents to pour in.

“We talk about where to hide,” said Sergio. The Observer is withholding his last name to protect his identity.

With eight processing plants in the Southeast and about 6,000 employees, the Raeford, N.C.-based company is one of the nation's top chicken and turkey producers. Workers stand shoulder to shoulder for hours cutting and tearing meat from thousands of birds a day.

In a February series on 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.

House of Raeford did not return a request for comment on this story. The company has said it doesn't knowingly hire undocumented workers and regularly asks outside counsel to audit company records and hiring practices.

Raids around the country

Late last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a work-site investigation of House of Raeford's Greenville plant. Federal agents reviewed company files and workers' employment eligibility forms, known as I-9 forms. Based on the review, federal officials found workers using invalid IDs.

Over the summer, ICE arrested 10 plant supervisors at their homes – in front of family and neighbors, many of whom worked at the plant.

In August, seven supervisors pleaded guilty to using false Social Security numbers or alien registration numbers. The remaining three face similar charges. The plant's human resources director, Elaine Crump, was also arrested. She was indicted on 20 felony counts charging that she instructed employees to use fraudulent employment eligibility forms. She is expected in court next month.

Massive immigration raids around the country have exacerbated fears in South Carolina. In May, federal agents arrested nearly 400 workers at an Iowa meat processing plant. Last month, federal agents arrested nearly 600 illegal immigrants at a Mississippi manufacturer.

“They say ‘la migra' (immigration) is coming on Monday, or Tuesday,” said Joaquin Hernandez, 28, whose wife is a supervisor. “No one knows what to do.”

‘People are afraid to work'

The company has been reluctant to discuss the arrests and investigation with its Latino staff. Line workers say that only within the past few weeks have managers addressed worker concerns. Some supervisors have taken on a counseling role, pleading with remaining Latino workers not to leave the plant.

Last month, Hernandez said, his wife's boss called her at home to persuade her to come to work amid rumors of a raid. He said it wasn't until after 11 a.m., when the supervisor called again, that she agreed to return.

In August, a supervisor at the West Columbia plant said a manager, identified by his white hard hat, brought several supervisors together to discuss workers' fears. He told the supervisors to tell workers that immigration agents would not raid the plant.

“People are afraid to work,” the supervisor said. “The white hat wanted us to tell the workers that immigration would not come inside the plant. He said he would not let them inside.”

Drop in production

The shortage of workers has curtailed production. One worker at the Greenville plant, who asked not to be named, said she was told that managers will likely cut plant operations to half the usual capacity sometime in October. Others believe the plant may close.

Last month, House of Raeford announced it would begin reducing the number of broilers processed by 5 percent. The company didn't address the arrests.

“The current obstacles that face our industry require that supply be brought in line with demand,” company officials said in a statement to industry publication, Watt Poultry.

Francisco, another worker, says his department has gone from processing about 92,000 birds to about 85,000 birds a day.

“We used to race to do the work,” he said. “Now it's a very relaxed job. They can't be getting the result they want.”

In the past six months, the plants have employed more prisoners.

About 50 nonviolent offenders from the Livesay Correctional Institution in Spartanburg work at the Greenville plant. At least 20 from Campbell Pre-Release Center in Columbia work at the West Columbia plant. The money prisoners earn pays for room and board, and a portion goes to restitution for victims. The remaining money can be used in prison canteens, or go into a savings account, which inmates can use when they're released.

Federal agents continue to investigate House of Raeford Farms.

Ana, a 27-year-old line worker from Vera Cruz, Mexico, lives next door to where immigration agents arrested one of the Greenville supervisors. She wonders whether her arduous journey to South Carolina was worth it.

“I'm terrified,” she said. “Everyone is terrified. People are frozen with fear."

Staff Writer Ames Alexander contributed to this report.

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