Over 300 Pilgrim's Pride Workers Arrested

Federal agents have arrested hundreds as part of an identity theft investigation at Pilgrim's Pride plants in West Virginia and four other states and were seeking more suspects Thursday.

DALLAS (AP) -- Federal agents have arrested more than 300 people as part of an identity theft investigation at Pilgrim's Pride plants in West Virginia and four other states, and were seeking more suspects Thursday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say agents had taken into custody 311 people by Thursday afternoon. Of those, 91 face criminal charges alleging false use of a Social Security number and document fraud. The rest face charges of immigration violations and were being processed for deportation.
ICE declined to say how many others were fugitives or whether they were looking at Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride, the nation's largest chicken producer.
''We'll go wherever the evidence leads us, whether it's in the company or offsite the company,'' said John Chakwin, special agent in charge of ICE's office of investigations in Dallas. ''We're still here. This is not the end.''
Pilgrim's Pride spokesman Ray Atkinson emphasized that the company cooperated with ICE agents ahead of the operation and was not facing charges. Company officials also reported suspicions of identity theft at one of its Arkansas plant to the government, Atkinson said.
The series of coordinated arrests began Wednesday morning and continued through the night, with agents working from a list of targeted people. Agents went to Pilgrim's Pride plants in Mount Pleasant, Texas; Live Oak, Fla.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Batesville, Ark. and Moorefield, W.Va., and the homes of those charged with crimes.
Officials arrested 115 at Pilgrim's Pride's operations in Moorefield. None of those arrested in West Virginia face criminal charges.
Fifty-eight people arrested were released for humanitarian reasons, which include medical conditions or sole caregivers. Of those, 16 were released in West Virginia.
Company officials would ask the workers to come to a certain spot in the facility, where agents would take the person into custody, Chakwin said.
He said that if a person was wanted for immigration violations and they weren't at the plant, then agents did not go search for them.
''Only if it was a felony warrant would we go off the site,'' he said.
The operation Wednesday stemmed from a long-term investigation that began early last year and yielded 24 arrests in December that included a Pilgrim's Pride worker accused of dealing identification documents and a human resources employee at the company's Mount Pleasant facility, ICE officials said. In that case, undercover agents say they infiltrated an East Texas document vending ring in which job seekers would pay hundreds of dollars for identification that would get them jobs at Pilgrim's Pride.
''As a result of those arrests, we had an indictment for other individuals that had misused Social Security cards and were working at the plant,'' Chakwin said.
More than half of those facing criminal charges were from the Mount Pleasant plant and face counts of false use of a Social Security number. If convicted, they face up to five years in federal prison and fine of up to $250,000.
ICE agents made 863 criminal arrests involving worksite enforcement in fiscal 2007, which included 59 company owners and 32 corporate officials, human resources personnel and others managers. As part of those cases, 17 companies were subjected to fines, forfeitures and payment penalties.
Cases can range from companies that worked to verify documents but still ended up with an unauthorized worker to staffers who help job seekers obtain identification to midlevel managers who find out they have illegal workers but don't want to lose the employee, Lichter said.
''I think the issue for an employer is you're only as good as your tools,'' said Laura Lichter, an immigration attorney in Denver helping coordinate legal help for immigration detainees.
The workers arrested in the latest roundup are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Colombia.
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