Released 15 December 2006  By EMILY GURNON, MARICELLA MIRANDA and TAD VEZNER, Pioneer Press
Immigration raid roils Worthington
THE TARGET: Swift & Co. plant, 1 of 6 company facilities raided in U.S. DETAINED: Hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants believed held BEHIND THE RAIDS: Authorities allege widespread ID theft ring
BY EMILY GURNON, MARICELLA MIRANDA and TAD VEZNER
Dec. 13, 2006
WORTHINGTON, Minn. — Federal immigration officials staged a surprise raid at a Worthington pork-processing plant Tuesday, terrifying immigrant workers and bringing operations to a standstill.
Hundreds of workers are believed to have been detained in the raid — one of six conducted across the country at Swift & Co. plants. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said official numbers would not be made available until today at the earliest.
Ten white buses with tinted windows parked in front of the plant Tuesday while dozens of federal officers with sidearms and armored vests entered and cordoned off areas of the plant in southwestern Minnesota, witnesses said. Attorneys representing family members said detainees were taken away in the buses. They were headed to Sioux Falls, S.D., and Iowa.
ICE chief Julie L. Myers told reporters in Washington, D.C., that agents had uncovered a scheme in which illegal immigrants and others had stolen or bought the identities and Social Security numbers of possibly hundreds of U.S. citizens and lawful residents to get jobs with Swift.
Myers said ICE officials had uncovered several groups that may have provided illegal documents. Some immigrants had genuine U.S. birth certificates, she said.
"The only thing people have been charged with have been administrative immigration violations for being in the country illegally," ICE spokesman Tim Counts said at the scene in Worthington. "… We believe there has been a significant amount of identity theft, but no charges in that realm have been brought yet."
The raid placed many of Worthington's 11,283 residents — one in five is Latino or Hispanic — in a state of turmoil. The sweep coincided with the day of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
"For the people that this is happening to today, short of losing a loved one, this is probably the worst day of their life," said Worthington Public Safety Director Mike Cumiskey, who was given notice Monday that the 7:30 a.m. raid was planned, though his department was not involved.
"On a purely human level, there are hundreds if not thousands of people in Worthington who are just terrified," said Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis immigration attorney who drove to Worthington, about 180 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, to represent workers and their families.
Nestor said when ICE officials initially arrived at the plant, workers were prohibited from leaving and neither union representatives nor company officials were given access to them.
Susana DeLeon, Nestor's law partner, said more than 100 government officials entered the building, shutting down portions of it to interview workers into the evening.
Counts said chaos was kept to a minimum: "Agents bursting though doors, chasing people around — that could not be further from what happened out there today. It was very orderly, very methodical."
Still, the two attorneys said they were in a "Catch-22" situation while trying to represent their seven Worthington clients.
"It isn't possible to get (forms approving representation) signed without you in the room, and it isn't possible to get in the room without the form being signed," DeLeon said.
Dan Donnelly, an immigration attorney in Austin, Minn., with clients in Worthington, said it will take at least a day for his clients to be processed before he can file motions for bond hearings.
But not all immigrants will be allowed to be released on bond, particularly if they have criminal records. Under certain circumstances, they can be deported to their native countries immediately, Donnelly said.
Many in Worthington said they were worried about family members whom detainees might be leaving behind.
Mike Potter, president of Local 1161 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said he was shaken after seeing men crying about suddenly being separated from their families.
"It's a sad situation. It's a human rights issue," Potter said. "I didn't see it coming."
Said Counts: "I want to make it extremely clear that everyone arrested has been asked pointedly what their family situation is, if they have children, what their care needs are. Sometimes that will involve releasing one parent on their own recognizance and scheduling a hearing with an immigration judge further down the line."
Hector Andrade, pastor of Communidad Christiana Church in Worthington, said his church was caring for five children from two families whose parents didn't pick them up from school Tuesday.
Alondra Espejel, of the St. Paul-based Minnesota Immigration Freedom Network, said she received reports of people going into hiding.
"There are people that will not leave to go to school,'' she said. "People are hiding in their basements. People are seeking asylum in their churches."
Noted one Swift employee who was detained but later released: "We didn't hurt anybody. We just work. We've been helping the town grow. We pay a lot of taxes. They don't realize that."
The 41-year-old employee, who has worked at the plant for 16 years and is from Nicaragua, asked to be identified only as Gloria, saying she feared being interrogated again by ICE officials.
Enrique Manrique, 33, a Swift worker and Mexican immigrant who now a U.S. citizen, said his wife, also a plant employee, was detained and taken to Sioux Falls.
"They took my wife," said Manrique, who has lived in Worthington for three years. "I have a son who just had surgery. My son is crying and missing his mom," he said.
"She asked for my son right away, and how he was doing," he said of an 8:30 p.m. phone conversation with his wife. "I felt very impatient, very frustrated. I wanted to run to her, to take care of her."
Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh said he hadn't been to the plant Tuesday and that the city was not involved.
Swift & Co. describes itself as an $8 billion business and the world's second-largest meat-processing company. The Worthington plant employs 1,800 to 2,300 people and processes 16,000 to 18,000 hogs a day.
No charges had been filed against the company Tuesday.
"Swift has never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor have we ever knowingly hired such individuals," company president and CEO Sam Rovit said in a statement.
The Worthington plant is a powerful magnet to immigrant workers who, since the late 1980s, have streamed into the Midwest in search of economic opportunity.
One illegal Guatemalan immigrant who worked at Swift — interviewed by the Pioneer Press in April — said that in his country he might make $3 to $8 a day for agricultural work, compared with Swift's average pay of $99 a day.
"I would say that the vast majority of the people that are workers here are probably illegal," Oberloh told the newspaper at the time in describing his changing community. "But that's not the issue that we're trying to deal with.... We're trying to deal with the people that are extorting and taking advantage of the ones that are here trying to work."
The governor's office voiced support for the raid.
"It's progress, certainly. We are glad to see that ICE's investigation into this issue has paid off," said Alex Carey, spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "It's good to see that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is proactive."
Tom Steward, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, added: "Sen. Coleman fully supports enforcing our nation's immigration laws and understands this issue is of particular concern in the community of Worthington. At this point it appears that all proper procedures have been followed by ICE agents."
The other five Swift processing facilities raided were in Greeley, Colo.; Grand Island, Neb.; Cactus, Texas; Hyrum, Utah; and Marshalltown, Iowa.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Emily Gurnon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-338-6516. Maricella Miranda can be reached at 651-228-5421 or email@example.com. Tad Vezner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5461.