In the wake of Tuesday's raid on a poultry processing plant that uncovered hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants on its payroll, House of Raeford Farms officials maintained the company has never knowingly hired undocumented workers.
But immigration and employment experts say it appears that federal authorities are trying to build a case against company managers, as they have in Texas and Iowa after raids earlier this year.
Federal officials say their 10-month investigation is focused on finding out who allowed illegal immigrants to be hired at the plant, known locally as Columbia Farms.
Authorities found that 94 percent of the employment eligibility forms they reviewed appeared to have false information. In all, federal authorities arrested 331 workers.
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Jessica Vaughan, a policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, said it's hard to believe company managers didn't know any workers were undocumented.
“If the investigation is ongoing, (authorities) must think there's more there,” said Vaughan, whose group advocates for more restrictive immigration policies. “…That's an extremely high percentage (of fake IDs) that suggests the employer wasn't even trying to hire legal workers.”
House of Raeford says applicants may have lied on their paperwork, but workers tell a different story. “They know we don't have papers,” said Mateo, among a group of workers who say they talked about their status with a manager days before the plant was raided. He asked that his last name not be published because of his immigration status.
In a review of court documents and interviews with federal officials and current and former workers, the Observer found:
More than 110 workers were hired using employment eligibility forms, known as I-9s, signed by a human resource employee who no longer worked at the plant.
A federal review of I-9 forms found that 777 of 825 workers had apparently submitted false documents to get their jobs.
Workers repeatedly told managers about their immigration status during conversations about potential raids.
Human resources employees in Greenville were directed not to examine actual IDs when hiring. Instead, a former employee says, they made black-and-white copies that concealed flaws in fake IDs.
Federal authorities have already indicted one top company official. Elaine Crump, the Greenville plant's human resources director, was arrested in July on 20 felony counts charging that she instructed employees to use fraudulent employment eligibility forms. Over the summer, 11 supervisors were arrested at their homes and charged with immigration violations.
The Raeford, N.C.-based House of Raeford Farms is one of the nation's top chicken and turkey producers. It has about 6,000 employees and operates eight processing plants in the Carolinas and Louisiana.
It's a family-run business. Marvin Johnson, 82, helped launch the privately owned company and now serves as its chairman. His son, Bob, is the chief executive officer.
Experts say that federal prosecutors are dusting off 20-year-old laws that allow the prosecution of employers on federal crimes. Scott Wright, a Minneapolis immigration attorney who has studied enforcement trends, noted in a recent report that immigration officials are taking a far more “aggressive, prosecutorial approach” than they have in years past.
In September, the president of Texas-based Shipley Do-Nut, Lawrence Shipley III, pleaded guilty to conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants after its Houston plant was raided.
Last month, four months after a raid at a large Iowa meatpacking plant run by Agriprocessors, authorities charged the company's owner and four executives with more than 9,300 child labor law violations. The state alleged that underage workers used circular saws, cleaned floors with powerful chemicals and performed other dangerous tasks. The company officials pleaded not guilty to the charges
Since October 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have arrested more than 1,100 workers. Among those arrested were 130 company owners, managers, supervisors or human resources employees – compared with 92 the previous year.
ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said his agency often proceeds in stages, starting with administrative arrests of illegal workers, then conducting interviews and reviewing records to build criminal cases against employers.
The U.S. Labor Department, meanwhile, says it is conducting an investigation into possible violations of child labor laws at the Greenville plant. Six juvenile workers were among those detained by federal authorities in Tuesday's raid. State and federal laws prohibit the use of juvenile workers in most meat-processing work.
House of Raeford did not respond to questions for this story. Earlier, officials said that they regularly have outside counsel audit company records and hiring practices.
“The company does not and will not knowingly employ anyone who is not eligible to work legally, including anyone who is underage,” officials wrote in a statement.
Patricia Ravenhorst, a Greenville immigration attorney, said the U.S. attorney and ICE appear to be conducting a very public investigation.
“I think you're seeing that with the arrests of the supervisors and the human resources director,” said Ravenhorst, who is working with the American Immigration Lawyers Association to coordinate advocacy and legal efforts for the arrested workers.
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.
At the company's West Columbia plant, managers also were aware of illegal immigrants on the payroll, according to Eric Lawson, a former supervisor who left in April.
Lawson said a manager told him on one of his first days on the job that most workers at the plant were either illegal or underage, so “all you got to do is threaten 'em a little and they'll do whatever you want.”
Last week, after hearing of the Greenville raid, many of the West Columbia plant's undocumented workers failed to show up, fearing the plant would be raided next.
“(Managers) say immigration is not coming,” said the supervisor, who asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job. “But people don't believe them.”