LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Eighteen illegal immigrants arrested at a north Arkansas poultry plant will be processed for deportation, but will not serve any jail time for using fake Social Security numbers and state identification cards, federal judges ruled Monday.
Magistrate judges Beth Deere and J. Thomas Ray accepted guilty pleas from 17 of those arrested at the Pilgrim's Pride Corp. plant in Batesville last week. Federal prosecutors dismissed the misdemeanor charges against one man, but said they planned to ask U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to begin deportation proceedings against him.
The guilty pleas will give the 17 arrested criminal records, which will allow prosecutors to pursue harsher penalties if they illegally return to the United States. The charges carry up to up to 2 years in prison and $205,000 in fines, but federal sentencing ranges would have given them a maximum six-month sentence.
U.S. Attorney Jane Duke said her office had no interest in seeing those arrested serve jail time, as they were ''otherwise law-abiding citizens.''
''They came here to better their lives and their family's lives by working,'' Duke said after the hearings. ''There's really not a desire to see that kind of person incarcerated because the family they were trying to make a better life for would suffer.'' Three others face administrative charges of immigration violations after the raid Wednesday at the Pilgrim's Pride plant, part of a national sweep at company operations in Florida, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. Duke said federal agents had not arrested anyone else in the days after the Batesville raid, though whoever supplied those arrested with the Social Security numbers and identification cards remains at large.
Those arrested all used their illegally obtained identifications to apply for jobs at Pilgrim's Pride, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Ray White said. None had previous criminal records.
At an afternoon hearing, the men filed into the courtroom, most dressed in jeans and sneakers. Two wore rubber boots. The youngest was 18, while the oldest was 59. All wore headphones that allowed them to listen to the judge through a court interpreter.
Deere urged the men to be honest and tell federal public defender Jenniffer Horan if they had children living in the country who would be left behind. After the raid, state authorities said they took in no children. Those arrested during a July 27, 2005, raid on a Petit Jean Inc. poultry plant in Arkadelphia left behind about 30 children at schools and daycares.
''We don't want to leave minor children in a precarious situation,'' Deere said.
The judge also tried to put the men at ease by describing Guatemala and Mexico as ''beautiful countries'' and promising to learn Spanish. Most stood impassively by, staring straight ahead or at the courtroom's floor. One man audibly wept at one point during the hearing.
''While they did break the law, they are not criminals,'' Horan told the judge. ''They came to this country to seek a better life.''
Most men passed at an opportunity to speak, though Gavino Aguillan-Bautista, 59, did. Horan said the man had been living in the country for at least 13 years.
''I want to thank God for the life and health I had in this country,'' the Guatemalan told the court in Spanish. ''I ask God to bless all of you in the United States.''
Deere offered her own thoughts after sentencing the men to the terms of the plea bargain.
''I wish you all the best and God speed,'' she said.
After the judge left the courtroom, the men placed their hands behind their back, waiting for the marshals to fasten their handcuffs.