Massive raid reflects new ICE strategy?

On April 19, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 1,187 immigrant workers employed by IFCO Systems North America, Inc., which manufactures and recycles pallets and crates. ICE also arrested seven current and former IFCO Systems managers on criminal charges of conspiring to transport, harbor and encourage unauthorized workers to reside in the US for commercial advantage and financial gain. Two of the seven were arrested in Guilderland, New York; one in Amsterdam, New York; two in Houston, Texas; one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and one in Westborough, Massachusetts. All seven were released on bond and are to appear May 4 in Albany, New York, where the criminal complaint was filed. Two other IFCO employees were arrested in Guilderland on criminal charges relating to fraudulent documents.

Agents executed criminal search warrants at three residences in Guilderland where IFCO was allegedly housing unauthorized workers. (ICE News Release, AP, April 20; New York Times, Indianapolis Star, April 21) IFCO is based in the Netherlands with operational headquarters in Houston and Munich. (Rocky Mountain News, April 21)

Over all, the raids involved criminal search warrants or what ICE calls “consent” searches at more than 40 IFCO plants and related sites in 27 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Virginia and Utah. (ICE, April 20; RMN, April 21)

“We are cooperating fully with representatives from ICE and hope to have this matter resolved as soon as possible,” IFCO Systems said in a statement. (Newsday, April 21) “It is our policy to comply with all federal and state employment requirements,” IFCO insisted. (AP, April 20) At least 275 of the detained workers had already been removed to Mexico as of April 21. (NYT, April 21) Many others were released and told to report for immigration court hearings. (NYT, Baltimore Sun, Houston Chronicle, Charlotte Observer, Indianapolis Star, April 21)

The raids culminated a 14-month investigation conducted by ICE, the New York State Police-Upstate New York Regional Intelligence Center, the Social Security Administration (SSA) Inspector General, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation and the Department of Labor Inspector General, with assistance from the Guilderland Town Police Department and Schenectady Police Department. (ICE, April 20)

According to a government affidavit filed in the Northern District of New York, ICE began the investigation in February 2005 after receiving information that IFCO workers in Guilderland were seen ripping up their W-2 tax forms. Later investigation found IFCO officials transported unauthorized employees to and from work, paid rent for their housing and deducted money from their paychecks to cover these expenses. The affidavit says IFCO officials knowingly hired an unauthorized worker who turned out to be an ICE informant. Recorded conversations suggest that IFCO officials reimbursed the informant for obtaining fraudulent identity documents.

More than half of IFCO’s 5,800 workers in 2005 were using social security numbers that were invalid or belonged to other people, the affidavit alleges. In 2004 and 2005 the SSA sent IFCO at least 13 letters about such discrepancies. (ICE, April 20)

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the raids at an April 20 news conference with Julie Myers, assistant secretary for ICE, and Glenn Suddaby, chief federal prosecutor in Albany. “Employers and workers alike should be on notice that the status quo has changed,” said Chertoff. “These enforcement actions demonstrate that this department has no patience for employers who tolerate or perpetuate a shadow economy.” (ICE, AP, April 20)

Also on April 20, Chertoff and Myers unveiled a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “interior enforcement strategy” which seeks “to reverse the tolerance of illegal employment and illegal immigration.” DHS outlined three goals focused on “criminal aliens, fugitives and other immigration violators,” “worksite enforcement and compliance” and “criminal infrastructures” of smuggling and document fraud. DHS wants “a legislative fix in Congress” to allow ICE full access to social security data, and is working with Congress to “build employer compliance systems.” (DHS/ICE Press Release, April 20)

Chertoff denied the timing of the raids had anything to do with recent immigrant demonstrations. But Don Sherman, director of Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, said: “I think the timing is very suspicious because there are a number of rallies coming up around the country promoting immigration reform.” (AP, April 20) Cristobal Hinojosa, a Houston organizer, said plans for a May 1 nationwide boycott for immigrant rights will go ahead. “The people are angry,” he said. (HC, April 21) In San Antonio, Texas, activists protested the raids on April 20 outside an IFCO plant where 27 workers were arrested. (San Antonio Express-News, April 21) About 25 university students joined other activists in an April 20 protest outside the Chicago immigration office. “It’s almost like a punishment. You get up, you protest and now we’re going to punish you…” said Roberto Lopez of Pueblo Sin Fronteras. (Chicago Sun Times, BS, April 21;, April 20)

From Immigration News Briefs, April 22

See our last post on the immigrants’ rights struggle.