WASHINGTON – Federal agents targeting illegal immigrants raided meatpacking plants in six states Tuesday, arresting hundreds of workers on the uncommon charge of identity theft and shutting down the world’s second-largest meat processing company for much of the day.
About 1,000 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents with search warrants entered plants owned by Swift & Co., of Greeley, Colo., charging that “large numbers” of workers illegally assumed the identities of U.S. citizens or legal residents by using their Social Security numbers to get work, ICE officials said.
Company and union officials said agents, some dressed in riot gear, locked down six beef and pork processing plants early in the morning, segregating workers into groups of citizens and non-citizens after questioning. Some illegal workers were bused to detention facilities hours away, labor officials said.
ICE officials would not say how many people were arrested pending a news conference today in Washington. About 90 percent of Swift’s 15,000 U.S. employees work in three shifts at the plants, company officials said.
The crackdown was another step in the federal government’s stepped-up campaign against illegal immigration, and like some recent raids it targeted job sites, the magnet drawing many of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants. But the move was unusual for several reasons.
U.S. authorities cast the 11-month investigation as an attack on identity theft, not more typical immigration violations. Swift officials were not charged, despite recent administration vows to get tough on companies as well as workers.
The sweep also highlighted flaws in the main program through which the government helps employers authenticate workers’ identification documents, underscoring how weak government ID requirements and poor coordination with the Social Security Administration have frustrated enforcers for decades. Swift has been participating in the program for years.
In a brief teleconference with reporters, Julie Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for ICE, said that “the signal we’re intending to send here is, ‘We’re serious about work site enforcement, and those individuals who steal identities of U.S. citizens will not escape action from us.’ ” She said the government would also pursue vendors of fake documents, former workers and legitimate workers who sold their Social Security numbers.
Raids took place in plants in Greeley; Grand Island, Neb.; Cactus, Texas; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minn.
ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi said investigators will decide whether those arrested will face immediate deportation, detention pending legal proceedings or prosecution.