Released 18 December 2006  By Bill Conroy - The Narcosphere
ICE's Swift Plant Raids Netted Only Poor Folks Caught Up in the `War on Illegal Immigration'
By Bill Conroy, The Narcosphere
Sat Dec 16th, 2006
Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. - George Orwell
Earlier this week, the mainstream media headlines were blaring with news of a raid carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on six meat-processing plants owned by Greeley, Colo.-based Swift & Co.
The raids, orchestrated on Dec. 12, resulted in more than 1,200 allegedly undocumented immigrant workers being detained at the plants, many of whom were hauled off by busses across state lines to be processed and later released — a fact that has not yet made its way into the mainstream media. The raid was trumpeted by ICE as a major victory in the “war on illegal immigration” and as the culmination of a successful investigation into an organized crime ring that was supplying fraudulent ID documents to these workers.
The implied threat there, of course, is that this same organized crime ring could supply phony IDs to would-be terrorists as well. That has led the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to renew its political push for the quick adoption of a new centralized ID card system for U.S. citizens.
The day after the Swift plant raids, ICE issued a press release announcing “that approximately 1,282 persons have been arrested as part of an ongoing worksite enforcement investigation into immigration violations and a massive identity theft scheme that has victimized large numbers of U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. residents.”
The press release continues:
"Yesterday, ICE agents executed civil search warrants at six facilities owned by Swift & Co. (Swift), one of the nation’s largest processors of fresh pork and beef. Agents executed warrants at Swift facilities in Greeley, Colorado; Grand Island, Nebraska; Cactus, Texas; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minnesota.
In total, agents apprehended 1,282 illegal alien workers on administrative immigration violations at Swift facilities. Of these, 65 have also been charged with criminal violations related to identity theft or other violations, such as re-entry after deportation. …."
It seems like the perfect script.
But, according to law enforcement sources who spoke with Narco News, that might be all it is: a script.
The Wizards of Oz
First, before we delve into that script, we have to keep in mind that ICE is part of DHS, which is headed by Michael Chertoff, who is the same bureaucrat who tried to put a happy face on DHS’s handling of the deluge of New Orleans. After that, who can seriously take anything DHS’ leadership says at face value?
Following is the happy face Chertoff put on the Swift plant raids in the ICE press release:
"Violations of our immigration laws and privacy rights often go hand in hand. Enforcement actions like this one protect the privacy rights of innocent Americans while striking a blow against illegal immigration."
The head of ICE, Julie Myers, a Chertoff crony who served for a time as his chief of staff when he headed the Justice Department’s criminal division, then adds this bit of drama to the script of the press release:
"This investigation has uncovered a disturbing front in the war against illegal immigration. 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. Combating this burgeoning problem is one of ICE’s highest priorities."
But this script has to be thought of like the Wizard of Oz, because to really understand the twist in the script, we have to come to realize who is pulling the levers — even if the wizards on the stage are warning us to pay no attention to the men behind the curtain.
Behind the scenes
What is not made clear in the ICE press release is the importance of the fact that the Swift plant raids did not involve criminal search warrants. The warrants used to justify ICE’s invasion of the plants, by ICE’s own admission, were “civil warrants” — also referred to as administrative warrants. In layman’s terms, those are warrants issued to examine documents, such as I9 Employment Verification forms.
So if the ICE raids on the Swift plants were intended to bust up a major criminal ring supplying stolen ID information to undocumented workers, the law enforcers came armed with the wrong paperwork.
A criminal investigation makes use of criminal search warrants. But a judge will only issue a search warrant when he or she has been convinced that enough evidence has been gathered in an investigation to meet the standard of probable cause. For example, if an ICE agent or informant had actually purchased stolen identification documents from the so-called organized crime ring as part of an undercover operation, that act would constitute probable cause for a search warrant.
So ICE clearly had not met that threshold in its investigation of this devious organized crime ring, if there even is such a ring providing phony ID documents to the Swift workers.
In fact, law enforcement sources tell Narco News that ICE initially was trying to build a case against Swift itself.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the federal government went after a private company to try and prove its officials were in criminal violation of immigration laws.
From an ICE press release issued on April 20 of this year:
"Yesterday, ICE agents arrested seven current and former managers of [IFCO Systems North America Inc.] pursuant to criminal complaints issued in the Northern District of New York. All these individuals are charged with conspiring to transport, harbor, and encourage and induce illegal aliens to reside in the United States for commercial advantage and private financial gain, in violation of Title 8, USC Section 1324 (a). The conspiracy charge carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each alien with respect to whom the violation takes place. Two other IFCO employees were arrested on criminal charges relating to fraudulent documents.
In addition to the criminal arrests, ICE agents yesterday conducted "consent" searches or executed criminal search warrants at more than 40 IFCO plants and related locations in 26 states that resulted in the apprehension of approximately 1,187 illegal alien IFCO employees. Three of the criminal search warrants were executed at residences in Guilderland, NY, where IFCO was allegedly housing illegal alien employees."
(It is important to note that in the IFCO raid, criminal search warrants were issued.)
“ICE tried to get a criminal search warrant, but they didn’t have enough evidence,” says Mark Conrad, a former supervisory special agent for ICE’s predecessor agency, U.S. Customs. “… Nothing had been developed against the company.”
“This was all being directed out of ICE Headquarters in Washington,” adds Conrad, who serves as the associate general counsel for the National Association of Federal Agents. “It [the ICE investigation] was absolutely a fiasco.”
Swift officials have denied any complicity in providing phony documentation to the more than 1,200 workers detained by ICE officials at its plants. In addition, ICE has brought no charges against the company.
In a statement provided to the press, Swift & Company President and CEO Sam Rovit said: “Swift has never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor have we ever knowingly hired such individuals. “
However, as Conrad points out, ICE did attempt to make a case against the company and failed.
In the wake of that failure, ICE settled for administrative warrants authorizing its agents to dig through I9 Employment Verification documents at the Swift plant sites, and then ICE used the warrants as the pretext to question and detain workers.
In the world of immigration enforcement, they are known as Blackie’s warrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union describes it this way:
"Even raids conducted with a legitimate warrant, often referred to as a "Blackie's" warrant, [Blackie's House of Beef v. Castillo, (D.C. Cir. 1981)], are conducted in a dragnet fashion. The Blackie's warrant does not require that the INS name or even describe the allegedly undocumented aliens it seeks. Consequently, the raid is conducted by barring the exits, and questioning everybody, or discriminatorily questioning those who "look foreign" or speak with a foreign accent."
But these “administrative warrants” do have their limits, if the law is applied properly, according to Jeff Joseph, an immigration attorney in Aurora, Colo., who is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“An administrative warrant doesn’t by itself give law enforcement agents the right to stop someone and ask them about their immigration status,” he says.
In essence, the undocumented workers at the Swift plant who were detained likely thought they had to produce documents or respond to the questions raised by ICE agents raiding the plant, when, in fact, a lawyer might well have advised against that openness.
But even one DHS source told Narco News that the spirit of the law soon breaks down when workers are confronted with dozens of agents in raid jackets and guns asking them questions while their employers seemingly are cooperating with the agents. Lawyers are rarely on hand for those pressing moments in the course of “justice.”
The supposed criminals behind the stolen ID ring that Chertoff claims were feeding on Swift plant employees, though, were never in danger of being arrested during the ICE raids, because, if such a ring does exist, it certainly wasn’t operating within the plants, according to Swift officials.
The best ICE could hope for was to find some workers with fake IDs that were purchased from illegal vendors who were on the agency’s radar screen elsewhere, outside the Swift plants, due to other criminal investigations. The fishing expedition under the Blackie’s warrant, ICE brass hoped, then, would at least maybe give them some leads – or at least some straws to cling to in order to justify the huge expense of this multiple-month, 1,000-agent, multi-state investigation and raid.
Apparently, a good number of the ICE agents who were dragged away from their homes to carry out this doomed operation also felt they were being forced to fish in an empty pond.
“Field agents were telling ICE Headquarters to scale back the operation, but Washington refused,” Conrad says.
Dropping the ball
The aftermath of the raid is proof of the fiasco that ICE brass had dreamed up with the Swift raids.
The six Swift plants raided by ICE employ workers across three work shifts. ICE claims it detained more than 1,200 undocumented workers during the plant assaults. But that number might only have been the tip of the iceberg.
Conrad says that, in the case of at least the plant in Texas, ICE only detained workers from one shift. If that holds true across all six plants, and other shift workers were left untouched by the ICE raids (or didn’t show up for work after the publicity of the raids) the number of undocumented workers detained by ICE likely represents only a fraction of the total number of undocumented workers at the Swift plants.
But company officials insist they had no clue their work force was so dominated by undocumented immigrant workers.
A press release issued by the company following the ICE raids emphasizes that the company goes beyond the call of duty in checking the background of its laborers:
"Swift & Company’s comprehensive work authorization diligence has included, since 1997, participation in the federal Basic Pilot program – 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. Today, Swift remains one of the very few employers to use the system."
ICE, for its part, seemingly claims in its press release about the Swift raids that the agency only recently discovered a major flaw the Basic Pilot program. It seems the program can’t detect when a valid Social Security number is being used multiple times by different people.
From the ICE press release issued Dec. 13:
"By using valid Social Security numbers and birth certificates of U.S. citizens, these illegal aliens were able to thwart the Basic Pilot Employment Eligibility Verification system, a federal program designed to help employers detect unauthorized workers. Swift has used the Basic Pilot program since 1997."
Ironically, a Swift official told Congress about a major flaw with the Basic Pilot program this summer.
“As currently structured, the Basic Pilot Program cannot detect duplicate active records in its database,” stated Jack Shandley, Swift’s senior vice president of human resources, in testimony before the House Small Business Committee in June of this year. “The same social security number could be in use at another employer, and potentially multiple employers, across the country.”
So, it sounds like someone figured out a way to scam the Basic Pilot program, and ICE trumpets that fact in its press release (an indication that it had no clue up to that point) — even though Swift had figured it out by at least June of this year.
Anyway, according to DHS’ Chertoff, the glitch in the system led to Swift hiring 1,200 undocumented workers, if not more. Despite this fact, ICE was not able to gather enough evidence to convince a judge to issue a search warrant.
Conrad says all it would have taken to get at the evidence was a sting operation inside one or more of the plants. An undercover operation could have been set up to determine whether or not Swift was illegally hiring workers knowingly, and to determine if there was a black market for stolen IDs operating among the workers within the plant. If evidence was found on either or both fronts, that would be sufficient probable cause for a search warrant to be issued, he adds.
If an undercover operation was carried out and failed, then why did ICE still raid the plants? If ICE never attempted to set up an undercover operation, then why did the agency fail to do so?
One clue is found in comments made about the ICE raids to the New York Times by a Swift official:
From the Times article:
"Sam Rovit, chief executive of Swift, said the company learned of the ICE investigation in March [three months before Swift told Congress about the flaw in the Basic Pilot program], but had been “rebuffed repeatedly” when it offered to cooperate."
If the word of the investigation was leaked to Swift, assuming there was an undercover operation underway at the plants, it ran a great risk of being compromised at that point.
In any event, once the company was made aware of the fact that ICE was conducting an investigation, it reduced greatly any chance of establishing a successful undercover operation after that point.
But we have to concede the fact that even though ICE might suspect a company of a crime, it doesn’t mean the company committed a crime.
So even if Swift was tipped off to the ICE investigation, assuming the company had done nothing wrong, and even offered to fully cooperate, it really can’t be blamed in that case for ICE’s bad luck.
In fact, Swift officials argue that far from being too lenient in their hiring practices, they have a past experience of being slapped by the law for being too strict.
From the company’s press release concerning the plant raids:
"Current law limits an employer’s ability to scrutinize the background and identity of new hires, and – as Swift learned first-hand – employers can, in fact, be punished for probing too deeply into applicants’ backgrounds. Specifically, in 2001 the Department of Justice’s Special Counsel for Unfair Immigration-Related Employment Practices brought a complaint against Swift for an alleged “pattern and practice” of document-based discrimination against job applicants, and sought civil damages of $2.5 million. After two years of cooperation and negotiation, Swift settled the claim, with no admission of guilt, for approximately $200,000."
Though the lawsuit is a convenient card to pull out in the current controversy, since the company admitted no guilt, they could be seen as playing the same card both high and low by trying to advance the argument now that they were too strict in enforcing employee background checks.
Adding even more twists to the bungling on ICE’s part in this investigation, the Associate Press reports that ICE was forced to delay the planned date of its Swift plant raids by about eight days, after the company objected.
From the AP story:
"Immigration officials last month [in November] informed Swift that it would remove unauthorized workers on Dec. 4, but Swift asked a federal judge to prevent agents from conducting the raid, arguing it would cause ``substantial and irreparable injury'' to its business.
The company estimated a raid would remove up to 40 percent of its 13,000 workers. Greeley-based Swift describes itself as the world's second-largest meat processor with sales of about $9 billion."
Conrad also confirmed that the ICE raid was originally scheduled for Dec. 4, but adds that it was postponed for what he described as “political reasons.” He and DHS sources also found it odd that ICE would give any company so much advanced warning for a planned “raid.”
Just as puzzling as the bungling by ICE prior to the plant raids is the fate of the more than 1,200 detained workers in the wake of the raids.
ICE concedes in its press release that only 65 of the undocumented workers apprehended have been “charged with criminal violations related to identity theft or other violations, such as re-entry after deportation.” So if this ICE operation was premised on snaring a huge identify-theft ring, then who was in charge of this alleged multi-state organized crime ring that was dealing bad paper to thousands of Swift workers?
Clearly, by the wording of ICE’s press statement, only some fraction of the 65 charged criminally were booked on ID theft violations. It just doesn’t add up, according to immigration attorney Joseph.
“There were over 1,200 detained [in the raids], and to only turn up 65 people on criminal charges, means it was a failure for them,” Joseph says. “All it accomplished was separating families and leaving kids without parents.”
But surely there is something ICE salvaged from this apparently terribly bungled operation, right?
Well, think again, Conrad and others say.
DHS sources and Joseph told Narco News that many of the undocumented workers picked up in the ICE Swift plant raids were loaded on busses and shipped to other locations, including El Paso, Texas, and Albuquerque, N.M.
“I heard ICE is shipping them [the detained Swift workers] all over the country,” Joseph says. “Two bus loads [from Colorado] were sent to facilities in El Paso to hold people.”
In Texas, at least, nearly all of the undocumented Swift workers who did not have a criminal record were processed through the immigration system and then released to the streets because there was no place to keep them, Conrad and DHS sources confirm.
The detention centers were already over-booked. DHS sources said they suspect that probably was the case in other states where Swift workers were detained as well.
An internal ICE memo leaked to Narco News does seem to confirm that ICE has a standardized policy in place for the “catch and release” of undocumented immigrants who do not have a criminal background.
The May 16 memo, issued to ICE field offices by Marcy Forman, director of the agency’s Office of Investigations, states the following:
"This memorandum will serve as guidance to all Office of Investigations (OI) personnel on response to calls for service involving undocumented alien(s).
If all criminal and DHS systems checks reveal no derogatory information [no criminal record] on the detainee, it is expected that the agent complete the administrative processing through ENFORCE and, if applicable, issue a Notice to Appear (NTA). Depending on available bed space, and after consultation with the Office of Deportation and Removal Operations (DRO), a determination of bond … or release on the alien’s own recognizance … will be made."
So, in the end, it appears this hugely expensive ICE operation netted only 65 criminal arrests, many likely for minor offenses such as re-entering the country after being deported — technically a felony, but rarely prosecuted. The balance of those detained and shipped around the country are all likely to be cut loose — assuming they are not tricked into signing away their rights by agreeing to be voluntarily deported.
And even for those charged with ID theft, if there really are any, the government faces a big hurdle in obtaining a conviction.
One DHS source explained it this way:
"You have to prove the illegal alien manufactured or counterfeited the document. I do not believe the aliens have the know-how to actually commit the crime of ID theft. This takes some knowledge and experience. Otherwise, all you have is possession and unauthorized use."
So I guess we’ll have to stay tuned to see how many ID theft convictions actually result from this ICE fiasco.
"This is nuts the way this was handled," Conrad says. "... Why the hell did we fly hundreds of ICE criminal investigators around the country to process illegal aliens, who are only going to be released anyway, while we have to deal with much more pressing issues like terrorism, narco-trafficking and weapons smuggling? This was all a show, the genesis of some moron in Washington."
Following the money
But regardless of how you, kind reader, weigh all the facts and assertions to this point, there is no separating the currents of politics and economics that rush through the deep canyons of American-style justice.
To trace the course of those waters in this story, we have to follow the money. And in the case of Swift, that trail leads all the way back to the President George W. Bush, who, of course, is the ultimate commander and chief of ICE — the very agency that was charged with carrying out the Swift investigation and plant raids.
That doesn’t mean Bush played any role in coaching the outcome of the ICE investigation, one way or another. But no story on this subject would be complete without connecting all the dots in the “war on illegal immigration.”
The first line of connection is found at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Because Swift’s stock is publicly traded, the company must file an annual 10K report with the SEC.
In Swift’s most recent 10K report, for its fiscal year ending May 28, buried in the footnotes, are these little goodies:
- Five of the company’s board members, including its chairman, are elected at the pleasure of a Dallas-based private equity firm called Hicks Muse — which recently adopted the name of HM Capital Partners. Three of Swift’s current board members are partners at Hicks Muse. As a result, Hicks Muse indirectly exerts great control over the company.
- An entity called Swift Foods ultimately controls all of the public company’s stock. Another entity controlled indirectly by Hicks Muse —called HMTF Rawhide LP, based in Dallas — owns 98 percent of the common stock of Swift Foods.
- And finally, Thomas O. Hicks, a co-founder of Hicks Muse, through another series of complicated business interests that include a Hicks Muse equity fund, is “deemed to be the beneficial owner of the shares of common stock of Swift Foods held by Rawhide,” according to a footnote in Swift’s 10K filing with the SEC.
However, “Mr. Hicks disclaims beneficial ownership of such shares,” Swift’s SEC filing states.
Even taking Hicks disclaimer into account, it clearly can be argued that Hicks has a major interest in the financial fortunes of Swift Foods.
If the meat-processing company’s stock goes in the tank, then the value of Hick’s substantial beneficial holdings are likely to suffer. Of course, the reverse is true as well. So it can truly be said, in the case of Hicks and Swift, their fortunes are tied to the price of pork bellies.
Some background on Thomas O. Hicks:
- Hicks acquired the Texas Rangers from George W. Bush and his partners in 1998 for a quarter of a million dollars, about three times what the Bush team had paid for the baseball franchise 10 years earlier. — source public-i.org
- Hicks checks in with a hefty $250,000 mark on the giving list as a Bush Pioneer, according to a 2003 study released by Texans for Public Justice. — source Texans for Public Justice
- Hicks also donated $100,000 to George W.’s 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee. — source opensecrets.org
- “The connection between Tom Hicks and President Bush has long been a source of public speculation. Tom Hicks served on the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System and as chairman of UTIMCO [the nonprofit University of Texas Investment Management Company.]” — source commoncause.org
- “… Largely freed from public accountability, UTIMCO embarked on a series of deals that raised serious questions about conflict of interest and political favoritism. Friends and longtime associates of Thomas Hicks, and his firm's past and future business partners -- as well as major Republican contributors and political supporters of the Bush family -- received hundreds of millions of dollars from the University of Texas investment funds. There was nothing unlawful about these decisions, all of which were vetted by the powerhouse law firm of Vinson & Elkins, another of Bush's largest lifetime donors.” — source salon.com
What does this all mean?
On the one hand, given Hicks’ connections to Swift and to Bush, the sincerity of the president’s immigration reforms proposals in relation to his support for a guest-worker visa program seems genuine in so far as he values his friends and financial backers.
On the other hand, ICE’s targeting of Swift and its undocumented workers seems to run counter to the interest of the president and his backers.
However, the raids do offer the promise of appeasing the hard-liners among the immigration-reform movement in the country.
The efforts by Bush appointee and DHS top gun Chertoff to make lemonade out of those lemons takes on a whole new flavor in that light.
But what about the immigrants themselves?
A DHS source put it this way to Narco News:
“Who arrests illegal aliens at Christmas time that are coming to work to butcher pigs? How does that make our country safer? All it does is raise the price of pork.”
In the end, maybe it’s true what they say: The rich man’s gain comes from the poor man’s pain.
Or, as George Orwell put it: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”