Federal agents raided meat processing plants in six states Tuesday and arrested an unknown number of suspected illegal immigrants in an identity theft investigation, temporarily suspending operations at all six plants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the workers were being arrested on administrative immigration violations and, in some cases, existing criminal arrest warrants stemming from a nearly yearlong investigation.
ICE chief Julie L. Myers told reporters in Washington that agents had uncovered a scheme in which illegal immigrants and others had stolen or bought the identities and Social Security numbers of possibly hundreds of U.S. citizens and lawful residents to get jobs with Greeley-based meat processor Swift & Co.
Six Swift processing facilities were raided Tuesday, in Greeley, Colo.; Grand Island, Neb.; Cactus, Texas; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minn., representing all of Swift’s domestic beef processing capacity and 77 percent of its pork processing capacity.
No charges had been filed against the company.
“Swift has never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor have we ever knowingly hired such individuals,” Swift & Co. President and CEO Sam Rovit said in a written statement.
Since 1997, Swift has been using a government pilot program that confirms whether Social Security numbers are valid. Company officials have previously said one shortcoming may be in the program’s ability to detect when two people are trying to use the same number.
In Greeley, cars lined the street leading to the plant as family members stood outside. One person held a sign that said, “Presents! No tears at Christmas!”
One sheriff’s deputy described the scene outside a meatpacking plant in Hyrum as a circus.
“They’ve got three buses, a bunch of transport vans, a lot of cars and 150 or so agents,” chief Cache County Deputy David Bennett said Tuesday.
Bennett said ICE officials didn’t notify the sheriff’s department about the raid.
“They didn’t ask for our help,” Bennett said. “We were lucky to find out.”
Swift & Co. describes itself as an $8 billion business and the world’s second-largest meat processing company. In Hyrum, where city Administrator Brent Jensen says the plant employs more than 1,000 workers, the company can process up to 2,200 cattle a day, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
Several rings suspected
Myers said immigration officials were “looking very aggressively” at who may have sold the identities to the workers in several cases. She said ICE had uncovered several different rings that may have provided illegal documents.
Some immigrants targeted had genuine U.S. birth certificates, and others had other kinds of false identification, Myers said.
“The significance is that we’re serious about work site enforcement and that those who steal identities of U.S. citizens will not escape enforcement,” Myers said
ICE officials at the plants in Greeley and Worthington, Minn., said the total number of arrests might not be released until Wednesday, when a news conference was scheduled in Washington.
“We have been investigating a large identity theft scheme that has victimized many U.S. citizens and lawful residents,” said ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez at the plant in Greeley.
Gonzalez said federal agents worked closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to try to minimize the disruption at the plants while carrying out the search warrants..