“We been spending our life here, and we’re helping this country, like the president says, to be great.” Sarah Warnock, Clarion Ledger
JACKSON, Mississippi — Federal prosecutors have indicted 99 poultry workers arrested in Mississippi immigration raids in August.
Court documents allege clear signs the companies knew who they were hiring.
But the four companies targeted in the operation have yet to face charges for hiring undocumented employees — and similar cases from across the country show they could avoid prosecution altogether.
A Clarion Ledger review of past large-scale worksite immigration raids throughout the United States — including six under the Trump administration — shows investigations into employers often last more than a year, and criminal charges seldom materialize.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 680 migrant workers at six chicken processing plants in Mississippi on Aug. 7, the largest single-state worksite raid in agency history. Agents seized computers and documents to build their case that the four companies knowingly hired unauthorized workers.
“The fact that we haven’t seen (any employers) indicted, and nobody hauled out the day of raids, doesn’t surprise me,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Ole Miss and a former assistant U.S. attorney. “You want to spend time with the documents obtained in the raid before making any ultimate charging decisions.”
U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst declined to comment on the status of his investigation into the poultry companies, though he has previously pointed to a track record that includes prosecuting employers.
But while the 99 migrant poultry workers face a variety of charges and the threat of deportation, plants operated by the two companies where the most employees were arrested are back up and running.
Feds rarely go after employers
Just 11 managers and no companies were prosecuted from April 2018 to March 2019, a Syracuse University analysis found. Annual prosecutions of employers almost never climbed above 15.
While prosecuting companies has always been rare, even fewer cases have been filed under Trump compared to the Obama administration, according to a recent Washington Post report, which examined data from Duke University and the University of Virginia. The slowdown comes as the Trump administration drastically increases the number of undocumented immigrants it’s arresting.
Under Trump, a series of worksite raids kicked off in early 2018, after ICE’s then-Acting Director Thomas Homan pledged such operations would increase by “400 percent.” Several times since then, authorities touted the latest raid as the largest in years, or in ICE history.
Six examples of large-scale ICE raids under the Trump administration
April 5, 2018: Tennessee meatpacking plant raid
- Arrests: 97
- The case: The family-run plant northeast of Knoxville was the largest workplace immigration enforcement operation in almost a decade. The raid followed an IRS investigation of the business, where agents said they were looking into tax evasion, false tax returns and hiring undocumented immigrants. A bank had noticed the company was regularly withdrawing large sums of cash, and officials said it was being used to pay undocumented workers.
- What’s happened? The former owner of the plant, James Brantley, was sentenced last year to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion, wire fraud and knowingly hiring undocumented workers, according to court documents. Two floor supervisors were also sentenced to probation.
June 5, 2018: Ohio Corso’s Flower and Garden Center raids
- Arrests: 114
- The case: About 200 ICE agents descended on two facilities in the Sandusky area. One agent said officials believed a “criminal network” had brought many of the undocumented workers to Ohio. ICE officials told a television station last year it was pursuing charges against the employer.
- What’s happened? Not much — an Ohio U.S. attorney spokeswoman said the investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed.
June 19, 2018: Ohio Fresh Mark raid
- Arrests: 146
- The case: Authorities called the operation at a meat processing plant in northeast Ohio the largest workplace raid in recent history. Fresh Mark was raided despite six years earlier being the first Ohio company to partner with ICE on a program to prevent hiring unauthorized workers. Officials said they had been investigating the company for a year, including whether it was knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
- What’s happened? Not much — a U.S. attorney spokesman said the investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed.
Aug. 18, 2018: Nebraska and Minnesota vegetable processing plant raids
Aug. 28, 2018: Texas Load Trail trailer manufacturer raid
- Arrests: 160
- The case: More than 300 ICE agents descended on the trailer company northeast of Dallas after receiving information that the company “knowingly hired illegal aliens.” The operation, once again, was the largest workplace raid in years. And it wasn’t the first time the company faced federal scrutiny for its hiring: In 2014 Load Trail was fined $445,000 for employing more than 170 undocumented immigrants.
- What’s happened? Not much — the investigation into the company is ongoing, a Texas U.S. attorney spokeswoman said. Media reports indicate a settlement could be on the horizon. The company remains open but the CEO recently complained to NPR about a severe shortage of welders due to the raid, as other competing trailer companies in the area continue to employ them.
April 3, 2019: Texas CVE Technology raid
- Arrests: 280
- The case: Once again, officials said the raid of a cellphone refurbishing company in Allen was the largest single site operation in a decade. Investigators said they had received tips the company “knowingly hired illegal aliens,” and many had fraudulent documents.
- What’s happened? Steve Kardell, a lawyer who specializes in corporate whistleblower law, told the Dallas Morning News the scope of the raid was an example of the Trump administration “trying to make some examples out of the companies,” not just employees. But a Texas U.S. attorney spokeswoman said the investigation into CVE is ongoing and charges haven’t been filed.
Regardless of where they are, companies use similar defense against ICE prosecutions
Companies often use a similar playbook when caught up in immigration raids. They point out publicly they always used E-Verify. Or, they mention many of their employees were vetted through a third-party staffing agency, so they had no way of knowing if they were unauthorized.
The Immigration and Control Act of 1986 made it illegal for employers to “knowingly” hire unauthorized immigrants, which experts say can be utilized as a loophole by companies, if they can make the case that they weren’t aware.
Koch sued following the raid, alleging the government failed to show it had “knowingly” hired unauthorized workers. It said the company always followed employment verification protocols including E-Verify.
Peco officials also said they had processed every applicant through E-Verify for “more than a decade.” The company said it hired an immigration law specialist after the raids to audit the plants and their hiring procedures, including checking identification documents and running E-Verify.
“All these facilities, including the raided ones, have passed the audit,” Peco said in a statement, adding it continues to cooperate with the federal investigation.
When 114 employees at Corso’s, the Ohio garden center, were arrested last year, the company released a similar statement: “If anyone used false, fraudulent, or otherwise disingenuous identification documents or other documents to secure employment at Corso’s, the company was not aware of those things.”
Koch Foods, with 243 workers arrested at its Morton plant, said it was operational the day after the raid, and continues to seek job applicants for various positions.
Spokesman Jim Gilliland recently said it was “business as usual,” though he declined to comment on hiring challenges created by the raids. “We’re meeting our customers’ orders,” he said. “Our employees are showing up to work and doing a great job.”
In a statement, Peco said it “lost talented team members” in the raids, and continues to seek out applicants who “have the legal right to work in the United States.” It said it has “worked to improve production levels and efficiencies since the August plant raids.”
Two other raided companies, PH Foods and Pearl River Foods, did not respond to Clarion Ledger inquiries about their status. Morton Mayor Gerald Keeton said the PH plant is again operational, though not at full speed.
How high up corporate ladder will prosecutors go?
Experts say criminal charges probably will be filed in the Mississippi chicken plant cases. They point to the sheer size of the investigation and evidence contained in search warrant affidavits that suggest at least some company officials were aware of who they hired.
“I would be surprised if there are no indictments against corporate officials and the corporations themselves,” said Johnson, the Ole Miss professor, who has been volunteering with a group called the Mississippi Immigration Coalition, assisting migrant workers and their families affected by the raids. He said a key question will be: How high up the corporate ladder will prosecutors “be willing and able to go?”
“This was a criminal case,” said Mark Reed, a former senior official for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, ICE’s predecessor. But, he added, there are outside political factors — such as the long-term employment impact on small communities — that can limit how aggressively prosecutors are allowed to go after companies.
“Who knows what’s going on behind the scenes with this case,” he said.
Companies often negotiate a fine and avoid prosecution, at least for higher-ups, including in two past prominent Mississippi cases.
The Country Club of Jackson acknowledged hiring undocumented immigrants more than a decade ago but no leaders there were charged; it eventually paid a $214,500 fine.
After about 600 were arrested in a 2008 raid at Howard Industries in Laurel — then the largest single-workplace raid in U.S. history — the company waived indictment and paid a $2.5 million fine. Only one company official, Jose Humberto Gonzalez, the former human resources manager, was charged. He was sentenced to six months house arrest and probation.
And two years earlier, top Swift & Company meatpacking officials avoided prosecution after some 1,300 workers accused of immigration violations were swept up at six of the Colorado-based company’s plants around the country.
Load Trail, the Texas trailer company, similarly paid a fine for its immigration violations in 2014. For its current case, Load Trail attorney Gene Besen said the company is in a “cooperative stance” with the feds and is holding ongoing conversations with prosecutors about a resolution to the current case. In another prominent Texas case, Waste Management recently agreed to pay the feds $5.5 million under a non-prosecution agreement for similar immigration violations in 2012.
Criminal cases against employees rounded up in the Mississippi raids — and potentially their employers — could drag on for years, experts say. Meanwhile, the largest worksite immigration raid in the country’s history will likely soon be replaced by a larger one under a Trump administration that has made clear its intentions to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
Days after the Mississippi raids, CNN reported, the White House directed ICE officials to carry out “dozens” more workplace operations this year. ICE offices around the country were told to identify two locations in their regions as “potential targets.”
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