Federal agents continue to investigate House of Raeford Farms as seven former supervisors pleaded guilty Tuesday to using fake IDs to work at one of its South Carolina poultry plants.
Walter Wilkins, U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, expressed satisfaction following the federal court hearing and said the investigation by his office and immigration officials is ongoing but would not elaborate.
All seven men were supervisors at the plant. Their guilty pleas, plus the additional arrests of four more plant workers on immigration violations, indicate how House of Raeford has depended on illegal immigrants to run its plant.
In a February series on working conditions in the poultry industry, the Observer reported that some House of Raeford managers knew they employed undocumented workers, according to five current and former managers. The vast majority of the line workers, they said, are in the country illegally.
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House of Raeford did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. The company has said it is “cooperating fully with immigration officials” and doesn't knowingly hire undocumented workers.
“We take all necessary efforts to comply with applicable law, including immigration laws,” the company wrote in a recent statement.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in orange jump suits Tuesday were defendants Simon Gutierrez-Gomez, Federico Torres-Perez, Juan Ramon Macias-Rodriguez, Juan Juarez-Suarez, Guadalupe Neri-Templos, Evaristo Merino-Vasquez and Juan Francisco Martinez-Olivarez. An interpreter relayed the narrative laid out by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lance Crick.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a work-site investigation of House of Raeford's Greenville plant late last year. Federal agents reviewed company files and workers' employment eligibility forms, known I-9 Forms.
“Based on review of the I-9 Forms, it was determined that each of the listed employees used an identification of another person,” Crick told the court.
Crick said the seven defendants had acquired someone else's permanent resident alien number or Social Security number.
“Si, señor,” was all Martin-Olivarez said when Judge Henry Herlong read off the aggravated identity theft charge and asked if he was indeed guilty.
The men will be sentenced later this year. Each faces up to two years in prison and is expected to be deported back to Mexico upon completion of his sentence.
Matthew Carruthers, attorney for Gutierrez and Merino, said he was surprised that the U.S. government was willing to pay to house his clients in a federal prison instead of putting them on a fast track for deportation, as has happened for past clients.
Gutierrez and Merino had no prior criminal record, Carruthers said, “not even a speeding ticket.” Gutierrez has two U.S.-born children, and Merino has one child. Each of them has begun making arrangements with his family to return to Mexico.
“They just want to go home,” Carruthers said. “They know they did wrong. Evaristo is just sick about it. He just wants to go home and take care of his kid.”
Immigration officials, spurred by the Observer report, earlier this year 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 two supervisors are U.S. citizens and were not among those arrested.
Former House of Raeford supervisors 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.
The former supervisors said the plant prefers undocumented workers because they are less likely to question working conditions for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.
Since publication of the Observer series, 11 House of Raeford employees have been arrested on immigration violations. Among them is Elaine Crump, the plant's human resources director, who was indicted on 20 felony counts charging that she instructed employees to use fraudulent employment eligibility forms. Her pre-trial hearing, originally scheduled for Tuesday, was continued until later this year.
Victor Cruz-Soto, Daniel Badillo-Baca, and Nain Zarate-Camarero were indicted last week on charges of using counterfeit IDs to gain employment, identify theft, and making a false statement to a federal agency, according to federal records. Arrested in July, the three men will be arraigned on Aug. 28.
Asked why the focus in this case is on supervisors and is unlike other cases in which plants were raided, Wilkins said he couldn't comment. He also wouldn't answer questions about upper management.
With eight processing plants in the Southeast and about 6,000 employees, N.C.-based 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.