Immigration sweeps in six states; ICE charged with racism

On Dec. 12, some 1,000 US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents carried out simultaneous dawn raids at six meat processing plants in six states and arrested a total of 1,282 immigrant workers, most of them Latin American. (AP, Dec. 12, 14; ICE news release, Dec. 13) The raids took place on a day celebrated by Mexican Catholics as a day of action honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe. Many of the arrested workers had attended an early Mass before their shifts to celebrate the day. (Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Dec. 13)

The sweep, which ICE dubbed “Operation Wagon Train,” targeted plants owned by Swift & Co. in Greeley, Colorado; Grand Island, Neb.; Cactus, Tex.; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minn. Five of the six raided facilities are unionized; only the one in Hyrum is not. (AP, Dec. 12; ICE news release, Dec. 13)

ICE promoted the raids as a crackdown on identity theft, alleging that workers had used the stolen identities of US citizens and lawful residents to get jobs at Swift. Yet all 1,282 workers arrested were charged with administrative immigration violations, and only 65 were also charged with criminal violations including illegal re-entry after deportation, identity theft or forgery. ICE declined to say how many workers faced charges specifically relating to identity theft. (Denver Post, Dec. 14; ICE news release, Dec. 13)

The arrested workers were from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Laos, Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries of origin which had not yet been identified as ICE was still processing the detained workers. The investigation is ongoing. (ICE news release, Dec. 13)

No civil or criminal charges have been filed against Swift or any current employees. Swift had been participating since 1997 in the Basic Pilot worker authorization program, under which businesses check the legal work status of new employees against government databases. Swift said it believes the raids “violate the agreements associated with the company’s participation over the past 10 years in the federal government’s Basic Pilot worker authorization program and raise serious questions as to the government’s possible violation of individual workers’ civil rights.” (AP, Dec. 12; ICE news release, Dec. 13)

Swift & Company, founded in 1855, is the third largest fresh meat processor in the US, behind Tyson Foods and Cargill Meat Solutions, with sales of $9 billion a year. Once the meat-processing business of agriculture giant ConAgra, Swift is now indirectly owned through various holding companies. (AP, Dec. 12)

In Grand Island, Neb., Police Chief Steve Lamken refused to allow his personnel to take part in the sweep. “This is our community,” Lamken said. “When this is all over, we’re still here taking care of our community. And if I have a significant part of my population that’s fearful and won’t call us, then that’s not good for our community.” (Rocky Mountain News, Dec. 13)

Weld County [Colorado] District Attorney Ken Buck, who had reviewed evidence beforehand, believed the Dec. 12 operation was supposed to take place on Dec. 11, but speculated that ICE officials put the operation off a day after learning that Japanese officials were touring the Greeley plant on Dec. 11. The foreign officials were there to review Swift’s response to having recently shipped beef to Japan without proper documentation. (RMN, Dec. 13)

Singled out by skin color

“Maria,” an employee at the Hyrum plant who is a US-born citizen, said she was singled out for questioning along with other brown-skinned Latinos during the raid, while people with lighter skin were plucked out of line and given blue bracelets to indicate they were legal workers. “I was in the line because of the color of my skin,” she said. (Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 13) Attorneys who spoke with witnesses to the raid in Minnesota were also told that white workers who said they were US citizens were directed away immediately, while people with brown skin who said they were US citizens were required to prove it. (Message from Minnesota immigration attorneys, Dec. 13, posted on Detention Watch Network list)

Confianza, an association of Hispanic ministers, said in a statement: “It is deplorable that Americans who happen to have brown skin and work at Swift were also ’rounded up with the idea to sort it out later,’ as one local community leader described the situation.” (RMN, Dec. 13)

The investigation

In a federal investigation that began in February of this year, ICE claims to have uncovered large numbers of unauthorized immigrants who may have used the Social Security numbers of lawful US citizens or residents to get jobs at Swift. “We have been investigating a large identity theft scheme that has victimized many US citizens and lawful residents,” ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez said at the plant in Greeley. “The significance is that we’re serious about work site enforcement and that those who steal identities of US citizens will not escape enforcement,” ICE chief Julie L. Myers told reporters in Washington. (AP, Dec. 12)

Sam Rovit, chief executive of Swift, said the company learned of the ICE investigation in March, when ICE subpoenaed information on all the employees working at Swift’s Marshalltown plant. But Rovit said the company was “rebuffed repeatedly” in its offers to cooperate. “We have complied with every law that is out there on the books,” Rovit said in an interview. (New York Times, RMN, Dec. 13)

“Current law limits an employer’s ability to scrutinize the background and identity of new hires, and–as Swift learned first-hand–employers can, in fact, be punished for probing too deeply into applicants’ backgrounds,” the company said in a statement. In 2000, the Justice Department’s Special Counsel for Unfair Immigration-Related Employment Practices filed a complaint against Swift, alleging that the company’s Worthington, Minn. plant engaged in a “pattern and practice” of discrimination by more heavily scrutinizing the documents of job applicants who were believed to look or sound “foreign.” The department sought civil damages of $2.5 million. After two years, Swift settled the claim for about $200,000. (AP, Dec. 12)

“At no time did the government, with us, try to communicate the nature of their concerns,” said Sean McHugh, Swift vice president of investor relations. “We tried to reach out to them and say, ‘Look, if you’re concerned, if you’re trying to identify or remove or arrest criminals, let us know and we’ll bring them to you.'” In September, the agency granted Swift a meeting, “but details were few and far between,” McHugh said. “By mid-November, ICE informed us they intended, with or without our cooperation, to effectively shut down six of our plants,” McHugh said. (RMN, Dec. 13) Swift then fought unsuccessfully in a Texas court for a preliminary injunction blocking the enforcement action. (RMN, Dec. 14) “The company … did attempt to stop us from doing these raids by going to court,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Swift also conducted its own probe of suspect employees, and more than 400 were fired, quit or fled, said Chertoff. “We don’t know where those 400 workers are,” Chertoff complained. (Denver Post, Dec. 14) “We do wish they would have talked to us before deciding to terminate those individuals,” ICE chief Myers said at a news conference. “We regretted they took that action.”

Swift said ICE gave the company the go-ahead to question workers’ documentation. “At no time has anyone from ICE told any Swift official that they cannot take action against employees who Swift determines, on its own, are unauthorized,” ICE Investigations Director Marcy Forman wrote to company attorneys in an October letter supplied by Swift. “We started interviewing people and said, ‘Are you really who you say you are?'” said Don Wiseman, general counsel at Swift. “A whole bunch of them said, ‘No, I’m really not’ and they voluntarily quit.” Swift sent others to the Social Security office to get letters verifying their status. “Most of those people didn’t come back, either,” Wiseman said. (RMN, Dec. 14)

Myers and Chertoff said Swift generally cooperated in the months leading up to raids. “We asked the company not to reveal we were coming in advance,” Chertoff said. (RMN, Dec. 14)

The union’s response

On Dec. 13, officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which represents workers at five of the six raided plants, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Denver’s US District Court, asserting that ICE had violated the constitutional rights of the workers it detained. The union sought to have the workers released or be able to communicate with its attorneys. US District Judge John Kane ordered ICE to respond by Dec. 18. (Denver Post, Dec. 14)

The filing claims that those arrested are being denied access to lawyers and that their whereabouts are unknown. (AP, Dec. 14) “Our members are on buses and we don’t know where they are,” said UFCW spokesperson Jill Cashen. “Children have been left stranded. Parents have not been given the opportunities to make arrangements. We are struggling to reunite families.” (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 13)

“Essentially, the agents stormed the plants, many of them in riot gear, in an effort designed to terrorize the work force,” said Mark Lauritsen, director of a UFCW division. Lauritsen, in a statement, described Swift workers as “innocent victims in an immigration system that has been hijacked by corporations for the purpose of importing an exploitable work force.” The union said it has advised all the detained workers to exercise their right to have an attorney and to remain silent until they confer with legal counsel. (RMN, Dec. 13)

Why now?

Labor analyst David Bacon said that with the latest raids, “the administration is sending a message to employers, and especially to unions: Support its program for immigration reform, or face a new wave of raids.” Bacon noted that in the period leading up to the passage of the 1986 immigration law (which included an amnesty), immigration agents used high-profile workplace raids “to produce public support for the employer sanctions provision later written into the 1986 immigration law.” (“Justice Deported,” David Bacon, The American Prospect, web edition, Dec. 14)

Chertoff said on Dec. 13 that the raids were “a way of emphasizing the fact that getting this issue of comprehensive immigration reform right is ultimately going to save everybody a big headache.” Chertoff said the government hopes the Swift operation will spur Congress to act on a comprehensive strategy for immigration reform that includes a temporary-worker program and safeguards against the use of forged or stolen identities. Chertoff also said he hoped the raids would “be a deterrent to illegal workers, [and] cause them to say that, you know, this happened in Swift, it could easily happen somewhere else,’ Chertoff said. “In fact, I’m pretty much going to guarantee we’re going to keep bringing these cases.” (Denver Post, Dec. 14)

From Immigration News Briefs, Dec. 15

See our last post on the immigration crackdown.

  1. I can tell you where they are
    They are in Stewart Co. a brand new ICE facility. There are 400 there. This is a horrendous act and I appreciate being able to google your site, which was the frontline story when I googled Swift around 2:00 EST today and now I had to add “and raids” to my google to reach you. If you contact National Immigration Project, you can get more info.