With Mississippi Sting, ICE Sends Message to Big Employers of Illegal Workers

August 14, 2019 Updated: August 15, 2019

Details of the hiring practices of seven meat-processing plants in central Mississippi started coming to light as court documents were unsealed on Aug. 8.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents seized the business records during a sweep that hit all seven plants simultaneously and resulted in the arrest of 680 workers, suspected to be illegally employed.

Six of the seven plants were “willfully and unlawfully” hiring people who didn’t have legal authority to work in the United States, according to the court documents.

Almost the full staff of two chicken-processing plants were illegal aliens, according to a confidential informant who worked with ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents.

The two companies—P H Foods Inc. and A & B Inc.—owned by the same Chinese man, hired about 300 illegal immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico, the informant told agents.

The informant said most of the illegal aliens used their real names and made-up Social Security numbers. Others used falsified documents or the stolen identities of U.S. citizens, according to court documents.

A Guatemalan national interviewed by HSI agents said he had worked at A & B Inc. for about six years and was only required to give his name when he got the job. He said he was paid $900 by check every two weeks.

Some workers were wearing electronic monitoring bracelets for previous immigration violations.

Another illegal alien, Daniel Morales-Cabrera, told agents he had worked for P H Food Inc. for about five years under the name Samual Rivera, using a fake California identification card that he bought for $150.

According to ICE, worksite investigations often involve egregious violations by employers such as human smuggling, document fraud, money laundering, or worker exploitation, such as using threats or coercion, and substandard wages or working conditions.

Mike Hurst, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, said although he can’t divulge many details about the ongoing investigation, he’s looking to prosecute anyone who has violated federal criminal law.

“To those who take advantage of illegal aliens, to those who use illegal aliens for a competitive advantage or to make a quick buck—we have something to say to you: ‘If we find that you have violated federal criminal law, we’re coming after you,’” Hurst said at a press conference on Aug. 7.

‘Huge Case’

Former ICE Chief Tom Homan said the Mississippi operation is a “huge case.”

“This is a continuation of the effort to hold employers accountable to the law as written by Congress in 1986. This law’s been around a long time,” Homan told The Epoch Times on Aug 8. “This is about trying to remove a magnet that draws a lot of illegal immigration in this country.”

When Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, it gave amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants on the proviso that employers be mandated to verify that new hires are eligible to work in the United States.

Most illegal immigrants come to the United States for economic reasons, according to Yuma Sector Border Patrol Chief Anthony Porvaznik.

“In Border Patrol custody in Yuma, we really have a very small percentage of people that actually claim asylum or credible fear in our custody—it’s less than 10 percent,” Porvaznik said on April 17.

“Over 90 percent are really here for economic reasons or to unite with someone they know already in the United States.”

border security
A group of illegal aliens is apprehended by Border Patrol after crossing from Mexico into Yuma, Ariz., on April 12, 2019. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Deterring illegal employment is “the single best way” to try to control illegal immigration, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies.

“What we know from the past is when there have been these high-profile, large operations, then we do see a significant number of people—who are living here illegally—decide to go home on their own rather than wait to be arrested,” Vaughan said. “So this is important on so many levels. It’s the best kind of bang-for-buck enforcement that ICE can do.”

Vaughan said such large-scale hiring of illegal workers usually means the employers are complicit.

“It usually means that this was their business model. That they were deliberately bypassing the American workers who were available in order to cut their costs and increase their profits,” she said.

“There are presumably quite a few people in rural Mississippi who would qualify for these jobs and who need them to support their families.”

A Center for Immigration Studies report on Aug. 8 found that Mississippi has the lowest labor-force participation rate of any state.

Koch Food Illegal Workers
Onlookers watch as immigration officials carry out an operation at a Koch Foods meat processing plant in Morton, Miss., on Aug. 7, 2019. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)

A job fair held for a Koch Foods processing plant in Morton, Mississippi, which lost 243 suspected illegal workers on Aug. 7, attracted dozens of locals.

Eddie Nicholson Jr. of Louisville was among the Aug. 12 applicants at a state employment service office in Forest, Mississippi. “They hire anybody,” he told The Associated Press.

The 25-year-old has worked in chicken plants before and was considering a return, but wanted to see if wages had gone up. Plants in recent years have typically paid $11 to $12 an hour, according to labor statistics, but Nicholson said he wants $15 an hour.

“Our studies have shown that following these kinds of operations, typically the employers, if they want to stay in business, will have to increase wages and improve working conditions and offer these jobs to other local workers in the area,” Vaughan said. “So, this could be a real help to the economy in these areas.”

A massive ICE operation in December 2006 that included six meat processing plants operated by Swift & Co. resulted in close to 1,300 arrests of illegal immigrant workers. The plants—based in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Colorado, and Utah—took four months to resume full production, according to Jerry Kammer, senior research fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies, in congressional testimony on Nov. 18, 2009.

“To replenish its depleted ranks, Swift launched a campaign to recruit American citizens, green card holders, and refugees. It raised wages, provided bonuses to new workers, and paid relocation expenses,” Kammer said.

In that case, several hundred illegal workers were charged with identity theft against U.S. citizens by using fraudulently acquired Social Security numbers, along with immigration charges. No charges were brought against corporate officials.

ICE
ICE conducts a worksite enforcement operation in Canton, Miss., on Aug. 7, 2019. (ICE)

Illegal Immigrant Workers

No true number exists for how many illegal immigrant workers are in the United States, but an estimate from the Pew Research Center suggests 8.1 million were working or looking for work in 2012. That’s 1 in 20 U.S. workers, according to Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer for Pew.

“Because unauthorized immigrants tend to have less education than people born in the U.S. or legal immigrants, they are more likely to hold low-skilled jobs and less likely to be in white-collar occupations,” Passel said in a Senate hearing on March 26, 2015.

“They are especially likely to hold certain low-skilled jobs in construction and service categories. For example, unauthorized immigrants are about one-third of drywall installers (34 percent) and farm laborers (30 percent). They represent about one-quarter of roofers (27 percent), maids (25 percent), painters (24 percent), masons (22 percent), and carpet and floor installers (22 percent).”

Data obtained from the Social Security Administration revealed 39 million instances in which names and Social Security numbers on W-2 forms didn’t match corresponding Social Security records, according to a report by the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) published on Sept. 11, 2018.

The IRLI points to illegal immigrants as the main culprits.

The IRLI said the cases occurred between 2012 and 2016, after then-President Barack Obama stopped the practice of sending “no match” letters to employers, in cases where the name and number don’t match up on W-2 forms. Obama stopped the no-match letters eight days after he implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty in 2012.

ICE
ICE conducts worksite enforcement operations in Mississippi on Aug. 7, 2019. (ICE)

Worksite Enforcement

In 2017, as head of ICE, Homan announced that the agency aimed to quadruple its worksite enforcement and that illegal workers should be arrested during worksite operations.

Illegal alien workers were largely off-limits during the Obama era, when arrests plummeted from more than 1,600 individuals in fiscal year 2009 to 106 in fiscal 2016.

“The problem with that is when ICE agents are not allowed to even talk to the workers, much less arrest them, it makes it much harder for them to build a case against the employers—because it’s the workers who know what was going on,” Vaughan said.

There are few cases of employers being penalized for hiring unauthorized workers, as it’s more difficult to prove they did so knowingly—many can simply blame it on unknowingly receiving false documentation.

Employers must fill out an I-9 form within three days of a new hire and file it away. The I-9 requires employees to present proof that they can legally work in the United States, such as a U.S. passport or work authorization card. If the employee has neither of those things, they must produce a Social Security number or birth certificate, as well as a driver’s license or voter registration card.

A recent case demonstrates that employers do end up on the hook in some cases. In July, the former owner of a Tennessee meatpacking plant was sentenced to 18 months in prison and three years supervised release. James Brantley pleaded guilty in April to tax evasion, wire fraud, and employing illegal immigrants.

And in September 2017, a Pennsylvania-based company was fined a record $95 million for hiring and rehiring employees who company executives knew to be ineligible to work in the United States.

The company, Asplundh Tree Expert Co., a tree-trimming and brush-clearance company for power and gas lines, is also one of the largest privately held companies in the country, according to ICE.

Company supervisors knowingly accepted illegitimate documents, such as green cards, Social Security cards, and driver’s licenses, as evidence of authorized status or employment in the United States, according to a statement by the District Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

ICE conducts I-9 audits on businesses to help root out illegal hiring. From fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018, the agency increased its I-9 audits by 340 percent, according to Greg Nevano, HSI’s assistant director of investigative programs.

He said ICE also increased its worksite criminal arrests by 460 percent from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018, while administrative arrests increased by 757 percent.

A “pattern or practice” of intentionally hiring unauthorized aliens is a violation of Title 8 U.S. code, Section 1324a, and maximum penalties include fines of up to $3,000 for each unauthorized alien and up to six months in prison.

In addition, employers can be charged with a felony for intentionally making false statements on an I-9 form. Tax evasion and various other crimes around worker exploitation are also potential charges.

E-Verify

President Donald Trump’s immigration priorities laid out on Oct. 8, 2017, supported mandatory use of E-verify, which is a free system for businesses to check if potential employees are legally allowed to work in the United States. It provides an automated link to the Social Security Administration database and Homeland Security immigration records.

Currently the program is voluntary, but some states, including Mississippi, have made it mandatory.

A quick search on the E-verify website shows that P H Foods Inc. and A & B Inc. are not signed up; however, the other three companies included in the recent ICE operation are signed up: Koch Foods, Pearl River Foods, and Peco Foods.

The White House expressed that hiring legal workers is a priority for the administration in its April 2017 executive order “Buy American and Hire American.”

“In order to create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests, it shall be the policy of the executive branch to rigorously enforce and administer the laws governing entry into the United States of workers from abroad,” the executive order states.

Trump himself has been accused of having illegal workers on his properties, including housekeepers, maintenance workers, and landscapers.

A New York Times article in December 2018 featured illegal immigrant housekeeper Victorina Morales, who said she crossed the border in 1999 and used false Social Security and permanent resident cards to obtain work.

Illegal Workers in Mississippi

Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence said each of the 680 people’s cases in Mississippi will be handled individually, depending on their circumstances.

“Some of those individuals, we’re looking to prosecute criminally. Some of these individuals are here illegally, have already gone through the immigration court process, have been ordered removed by an immigration judge, and have failed to comply with that removal order. Those individuals, we’ll look to swiftly remove,” Albence said at a press conference on Aug 7.

“On the other individuals, who are yet to go through the immigration process … we will process them, we will place them in front of an immigration judge, where they will make their case as to whether or not they have a lawful right to remain in the country. The judge ultimately makes the decision as to whether or not these individuals can stay.”

illegal immigration
Former acting ICE Director Tom Homan testifies at a House hearing in front of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, in Washington on July 12, 2019. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Homan criticized the rhetoric by media and politicians following the arrests of the illegal workers, especially in relation to the videos of crying children, whose parents had been arrested.

“Everybody wants to make this about politics, and about race, and it’s just ridiculous. These laws have been on the books for years,” Homan said.

“Immigration enforcement has always been controversial. It’s always been emotional. Because you’re talking about arresting people that come to the country for a better life. I get it. However, we have to enforce the law.”

Homan said the politicians who complained can change the law if they don’t agree with it.

“You’re the legislator. ICE is the executive branch—they’re just enforcing the laws that were enacted by Congress,” he said.

“If the message we want to send to the rest of the world is: ‘You can come here and violate our laws, do anything you want, because if you have a child, we’re never going to arrest you because we don’t want a sad scene.’ If that’s the message we’re going to send to the rest of the world, you’re never going to solve your border crisis; you’re never going to solve illegal immigration.”

Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @charlottecuthbo
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