Federal agents arrested four supervisors at a House of Raeford Farms poultry plant Tuesday and are expected to arrest six more as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged immigration violations.
Immigration officials made the arrests after finding what appeared to be false information on employment records kept at the company's Greenville chicken processing plant, according to Kevin McDonald, first assistant U.S. attorney for South Carolina.
“It's an ongoing investigation – one that (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and our office have been working on for a number of months,” McDonald said.
In a February series about working conditions in the poultry industry, the Observer found N.C.-based House of Raeford increasingly relied on Latino immigrants. Of 52 current and former Latino workers who spoke to the Observer about their legal status, 42 said they were in the country illegally. Former supervisors said managers were well aware that undocumented immigrants worked for the company.
McDonald said that while he can't discuss the next steps in the federal investigation, “certainly those arrested will be given an opportunity to discuss any relevant information with investigators should they choose to do so.”
Federal immigration agents allege that those arrested used false Social Security numbers and alien registration numbers to get jobs at the plant. Some of the numbers belonged to other people, while others were invalid, the court affidavits state.
In a statement issued Tuesday, House of Raeford said it is “cooperating fully” with immigration officials.
“We have supplied the information they requested for their ... audit of this facility and support their efforts to enforce immigration laws,” the statement reads.
Immigration officials, spurred by the Observer report, recently questioned two former House of Raeford supervisors about how immigrant workers were hired and whether company managers knew some of those workers were in the country illegally, according to those supervisors. Those supervisors are U.S. citizens and were not among those arrested Tuesday.
House of Raeford has said it doesn't knowingly hire undocumented workers and regularly asks outside counsel to audit company records and hiring practices. “We take all necessary efforts to comply with applicable law, including immigration laws,” the company wrote in a statement last month.
With eight processing plants in the Southeast and about 6,000 employees, House of Raeford is one of the nation's top chicken and turkey producers. In the early 1990s, when another company owned the Greenville plant, most workers were African Americans. Now, most are Latino.
“We can only hire those who apply to work for us, and at the moment between 85 percent and 90 percent of our job applicants are Latino,” Greenville complex manager Barry Cronic wrote in response to previous questions from the Observer.
Former House of Raeford officials previously told the Observer that the high percentage of Latinos at the Greenville plant was no coincidence.
Human resources employees at the plant were directed not to examine actual IDs when hiring, but instead to copy them, one former department staffer has told the Observer. The black-and-white copies concealed flaws in fake IDs, the staffer said.
House of Raeford has said the plant examines all documents as presented and makes copies only for its records.
Federal immigration law requires little of companies when checking applicants' IDs. Employers aren't required to verify workers' immigration status or check that their IDs are valid. Instead, companies must accept applicants' documents if they “reasonably appear to be genuine.”
ICE increasingly is targeting “egregious” employers with fines and arrests when they knowingly violate immigration law. The agency often proceeds in stages, starting with arrests of illegal workers, then conducting interviews and reviewing records to build criminal cases against employers.
Late Tuesday, more than a half dozen House of Raeford workers sat on the stoop of their apartment complex near the plant. News of the arrests was the talk of the production line, they said. Some questioned whether it was safe to return to their shifts today. Two of the supervisors were arrested while working their night shifts at the plant, the men told the Observer.
“Everyone is scared, said Francisco, 29, a chicken hanger.
The workers all said they were in the country illegally, either from Mexico or Guatemala. The Observer is not using their full names to protect their identities.
Alejandro, 21, a chicken packer, said he learned of the arrests when his shift started at 9:30 a.m. When he got to the plant, his supervisor wasn't there, said the Mexican native. His supervisor, Simon Gutierrez-Gomez, was arrested and charged Tuesday with using a false document and making a false statement to a federal agency.
Alejandro said Gutierrez-Gomez is a good person, with a wife and young daughter.
Others arrested Tuesday were:
Juan Ramon Macias-Rodriguez, charged with aggravated identity theft and making a false statement to a federal agency.
Juan Juarez-Suarez, charged with false use of a Social Security number and making a false statement to a federal agency.
Evaristo Merino-Vasquez, charged with aggravated identity theft, using a false document and making false statements to a federal agency.
All of the men are from Mexico, according to an ICE spokeswoman. They had their initial court appearance Tuesday and are in the custody of U.S. marshals. Authorities say they've issued warrants for the six additional supervisors and expect to arrest them soon.
Lucas Alonzo, 25, a native of Guatemala, works at a manufacturer but lives within a mile of the poultry plant. He said he heard Tuesday morning about the arrests and that his neighbors, many of whom are poultry workers, are worried.
“Everyone is nervous,” he said. “No one here has papers.”