Caught In An Ice Storm

By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor

Swift & Co. is caught in the crossfire as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests 1,300 employees in the country’s largest ever workforce-enforcement action.

Illegal immigration has been a political hot topic for several years, particularly in the U.S.-Mexico border states. Identity fraud is considered the fastest-growing crime in the country. Those two issues came together during Operation Wagon Train, when six Swift & Co. plants were raided in a search for undocumented workers using stolen identities to gain employment. The raids also have brought to a head the legal conundrum that employers face when attempting to validate the documents of workers who claim to be eligible to work in the U.S.
The raids of December 12, 2006, temporarily shut down Swift facilities in six states, accounting for all of the Greeley, Colo.-based company’s beef production and 77 percent of its pork-processing capacity. The raids were led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and at the end of the day, approximately 1,282 people had been arrested. The targeted facilities were located in Cactus, Texas; Grand Island, Neb.; Greeley; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa, and Worthington, Minn.
The investigation was originally launched in February 2006, when evidence showed that hundreds of illegal aliens may have used stolen social security numbers and other forms of identification to gain employment at Swift facilities. “This investigation has uncovered a disturbing front in the war against illegal immigration,” said Julie Myers, assistant secretary for ICE. “We believe that the genuine identities of possibly hundreds of U.S. citizens are being stolen or hijacked by criminal organizations and sold to illegal aliens in order to gain unlawful employment in this country.”
The operation began almost a year ago when ICE agents interviewing criminal aliens in Marshalltown found that they had assumed other identities to gain employment at the Swift plant. At the same time, anonymous individuals using ICE’s tipline reported illegal aliens working at Swift.
Marc Raimondi, spokesman for ICE, says that as a law enforcement agency, it follows the evidence wherever it leads. In this case, it happened to lead to Swift, one of the largest meat-processing companies in the United States. In other 2006 investigations, ICE targeted a hydroponic tomato farm, a saddle factory and several construction sites. An investigation at a pallet manufacturer in April resulted in the arrests of 1,187 illegal aliens and seven company managers. Prior to the Swift raids, that was the largest action in the organization’s history.
“The unfortunate fact is a number of industries have come to rely on illegal aliens for their workforce,” Raimondi says. “Our message to them is no industry, regardless of size, type or location is immune from having worksite-enforcement actions conducted.”
All of the Swift employees were arrested administratively as immigration violators, with some being charged criminally as well. More than 200 have been selected for prosecution on charges related to identity theft and fraud. An additional 300 were granted voluntary removal and were immediately deported.
Raimondi adds that 100 workers were released for humanitarian reasons. “Everyone was asked the same questions, and one of the most important was if there were any unattended minors that they were responsible for. Based on those answers, we did the right thing, and in 100 of those cases, they were served with a notice to appear,” he explains. Those people are still in removal proceedings and will have to appear in front of an immigration judge at an appointed day and time.
Swift and Basic Pilot
After the arrests, Sam Rovit, Swift’s president and chief executive officer, released a statement saying, “Swift has never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor have we ever knowingly hired such individuals.”
For the last 10 years, Swift has participated in the federal government’s Basic Pilot worker authorization program. Basic Pilot is a voluntary, online verification system that allows employers to confirm the eligibility of new hires by checking the personal information they provide against Federal databases. Rovit said that every Swift employee, including those arrested by ICE, completed I-9 forms [establishing employment eligibility] and received work authorization through the program. “Swift has played by the rules and relied in good faith on a program explicitly held out by the President of the United States as an effective tool to help employees comply with applicable immigration laws.”
Unfortunately, one way to evade Basic Pilot is to have fraudulently obtained social security numbers and birth certificates, which was the case here. Attempts by a company to further investigate the background of new hires can get it in trouble if not done properly. In such an instance, Swift settled a lawsuit for $200,000 in 2003 alleging discrimination against job applicants.
“The commonly accepted advice out there that I’ve seen is that employers should use Basic Pilot as part of their efforts to ensure that they hire a legal workforce,” Raimondi says. “There are ways to conduct interviews that are in compliance with what has been determined to be lawful.”
Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, admitted in a news conference that the Basic Pilot program was only a partial solution. A more complete solution, he argued, would require congressional action to have the Social Security Administration identify multiple uses of the same social security number in different locations to better identify potential cases of identity theft. “[Basic Pilot] is certainly better than nothing, but it’s not a complete solution, and Congress can act and give us what we need to make it a more complete solution.”
Raimondi points out that Swift was not charged criminally, as it has been participating in the Basic Pilot program since its inception. “However, participating in programs such as Basic Pilot does not make your employees immune from being targeted if they violate the law,” he adds.
The affected Swift plants all continued operations later that same day, albeit at a reduced capacity. The company estimated that the cost of the one-time impact of the raids included $20 million, mostly in lost operating efficiency as new employees are retrained, plus up to $10 million to retain workers and offer hiring incentives to add back production employees.
What is ICE?
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division was founded in 2003, and it is a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Employing more than 15,000 people around the world, ICE investigates a wide range of national security, financial and smuggling violations. Along with immigration fraud and document fraud, it is also involved in drug smuggling, human smuggling, illegal arms exports, financial crimes, child pornography/exploitation and money laundering.
There are four branches within ICE. The Office of Investigations investigates domestic and international activities that violate immigration and customs laws. The Office of Detention and Removal Operations ensures the departure from the United States of all removable aliens through the enforcement of immigration laws. The Federal Protective Service polices, secures and ensures a safe environment at more than 8,800 federal facilities nationwide. The Office of Intelligence collects, analyzes and disseminates data for use by ICE and DHS.
“Across the board in everything we do, we’ve ratcheted up the enforcement levels,” says Marc Raimondi, spokesman. “Worksite enforcement is one of those very key parts of that enforcement.”