Authorities believe poultry companies intentionally hired undocumented workers, search warrants say
Federal immigration officials say they have probable cause that all five companies operating poultry plants raided by authorities in Mississippi last week violated immigration law by knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants, according to search warrant affidavits that cite videotaped statements of managers.
There were clear signs that the companies were hiring people who could not legally work in the country, the search warrants allege. Some workers wore ankle monitors as they awaited deportation hearings, gave Social Security numbers belonging to the deceased or were hired twice by the same manager even though the worker used different names on each occasion.
Since 2002, federal officials have reported more than 350 encounters or arrests of undocumented people who said they worked at two of the plants, Koch Foods and Peco Foods.
The companies for years have employed a stream of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants who are not authorized to work in the United States, according to the search warrant affidavits, unsealed in federal court after Aug. 7 raids on seven plants operated by Koch Foods, Peco Foods, PH Food, A&B and Pearl River Foods. In the affidavits, Homeland Security Investigations agent Anthony Todd Williams Jr. said there is probable cause to believe that the chicken plants in Mississippi intentionally hired undocumented workers who presented fraudulent documents “for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain.”
Williams wrote that individuals or companies shown to have “actual knowledge” of violating the employment law — meaning they knowingly hired at least 10 people not authorized to work for a year-long period — can be fined as much as $3,000 per undocumented worker. Employers can be imprisoned for as long as six months.
Neither the companies nor any executives have been charged with violating immigration law, although the documents name numerous managers who apparently knew about the widespread practice, according to the affidavits recently unsealed in Mississippi federal court. Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out the raids at seven chicken-processing plants operated by the companies, arresting 680 workers, about half of whom have been released to await further hearings.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said no charges have been filed against either workers or employers since the raids.
“No federal law enforcement agency is going to speculate as to if/when any federal criminal charges may be filed … as that is the sole decision of the U.S. Attorney’s office,” he wrote in an email.
Mike Hurst, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, said in a statement that he could not comment on the case because the investigation is ongoing. “If you look at the history of this office, we have consistently prosecuted employers, companies and owners when evidence has been presented to us to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they have violated federal criminal laws.”
Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, told The Washington Post that in his experience as a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer, such cases are time-consuming.
“Federal agents no doubt seized servers, hundreds of personnel files and thousands of additional documents to be analyzed and considered by agents and federal prosecutors,” Johnson said. “The fact that no corporate officials were hauled out in handcuffs on the day of the raid is not the least bit surprising.”
The records detail how ICE linked undocumented immigrants to the companies. Investigators found some employees via GPS coordinates at plants operated by all five companies. The employees previously had been arrested by Border Patrol agents in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and released on electronic-monitoring programs, including ankle bracelets, to await court dates. In each case cited, the individuals listed addresses in small towns in central Mississippi where they could be located.
An undocumented Mexican woman working in a Peco Foods plant in Bay Springs, Miss., told immigration officials that she had come to the state because people in Mexico had told her that jobs were available at the chicken plants there.
In cases cited in the affidavits, people on ICE’s electronic-monitoring programs were not authorized to work. But according to the affidavits, dozens of employees in such programs were found working at the seven chicken plants in 2018 and 2019. One successful job applicant was told by a supervisor during her interview that she would need to keep her ankle monitor charged while she worked.
Immigration officials in Jackson, Miss., say they investigated the plants by working with employees who were acting as confidential informants, coordinating with local police on traffic stops and culling records from jails and detention centers, among other forms of surveillance.
Since 2008, Mississippi has required companies to use E-Verify, a federal employment verification system that checks an applicant’s information against a variety of federal databases. However, the system only checks the names, Social Security numbers and other information supplied by the applicant, so it cannot always detect whether an employee’s application uses falsified documents.
Koch Foods, Peco Foods and PH Food issued public statements saying that they use the federal system, which compares an employee’s identity across databases. One of the search warrants lists the names of 25 PH Food employees whose names had not been run through E-Verify.
On Friday, Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan asking for documents detailing the cost of the raids, information on the detained workers and any past or current criminal charges against the companies that employed them.
“It appears that these DOJ and ICE enforcement actions are targeting only immigrant workers and not their employers,” the letter reads.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) is one of the top two recipients in Congress of campaign contributions from the egg and poultry industry, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith’s campaign is a top recipient of donations from the National Chicken Council PAC, to which both Peco Foods and Koch Foods executives donate.
Hyde-Smith, a former Mississippi agriculture commissioner, did not respond to requests for comment from The Post.
Here’s what the newly unsealed federal documents allege about the five companies whose plants were raided Aug. 7:
Headquartered near Chicago, privately held Koch Foods produces more than 700,000 tons of chicken products each year in its plant in Morton, Miss. The Koch Foods plant in Morton was raided after immigration officials said they received multiple tips that the plant knew it was employing immigrants not authorized to work in the United States.
Officials have reported 144 encounters, including arrests, since 2002 with undocumented immigrants who said they worked at a Koch Foods plant in Mississippi. ICE found that 21 employees of the Koch Foods plant in Morton are enrolled in the agency’s electronic-monitoring program, which tracks people who have been arrested on immigration violations and are awaiting court dates. Except in rare cases, such individuals are not authorized to work.
A Guatemalan woman who worked at the Morton plant since November 2016 told immigration officials in May that when she applied for employment, her first application was denied.
“She was told by a Human Resources (HR) employee (unidentified female) at the plant that if the ‘papers’ were not good, she was not going to be hired,” according to the affidavit by agent Williams.
About three weeks later, the woman used another name to send application materials to the same Koch human resources employee and was hired. “Even though she returned to the plant within three weeks and used two different identities, the HR employee did not ask anything related to her identity,” it says.
The Guatemalan woman told authorities that a Koch supervisor asked her whether she had an electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet, which she did. The supervisor told her “he knew ‘they’ were poor and came to the United States to work,” according to the affidavit.
Officials also talked to a Guatemalan woman who said that she first worked at the Koch Foods plant in Morton in 2017. She received permission to work from the Department of Homeland Security in 2018 and asked a co-worker whether she should talk to human resources about changing her employment documents to reflect her real name. The co-worker advised her to quit and reapply instead. So she did and was hired the same day at the other Koch plant in Morton, with no questions about her identity.
Koch spokesman Jim Gilliland told The Post that Koch Foods risked violating federal law that bans discrimination on the basis of national origin for requesting documents beyond what an applicant provides, if those materials appear authentic.
“Forms of identification can look completely authentic and jibe with the person who is sitting in front of us. … So you take what you’re given, and you enter that into the E-Verify system,” Gilliland said.
He said the company never knowingly employed people who presented false documentation to work.
This is not the first time federal immigration agents have raided a Koch Foods plant: 161 employees were arrested in 2007 at a plant in Fairfield, Ohio. The company paid a fine of more than $500,000 for violating immigration laws in 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Alabama-based Peco Foods, the eighth-largest poultry producer in the country, operated three of the Mississippi processing plants raided last week. The privately operated company is headed by President Mark Hickman, whose grandfather founded the company in 1937.
“We are fully cooperating with the authorities in their investigation and are navigating a potential disruption of operations,” the company told The Post in a statement.
According to the search warrant affidavits, 21 people enrolled in the electronic-monitoring program are employed at Peco plants in Mississippi. Authorities had 222 encounters with undocumented Peco employees between 2002 and 2019, the affidavits state.
Officials linked at least seven undocumented Guatemalans to one of the plants, including a worker who said he worked there for 12 years.
Since 2012, immigration officials reported encountering at least five undocumented Mexicans and Guatemalans who said they worked at the Peco plants in Bay Springs and Canton, Miss. Federal investigators worked with a former employee at the company’s Bay Springs plant as a confidential informant to videotape a conversation with a Peco Foods human resources employee, who said the plant has hired multiple employees twice but with different identities.
According to the affidavit, the human resources employee told the informant: “Peco Foods management does not care” about employing immigrants with questionable documentation.
The affidavit lists ICE’s first contact with the Sebastopol plant as July 2014, when officials asked a human resources manager to locate a Guatemalan man using someone else’s name for his employment. ICE arrested the man and reported encounters with at least nine more undocumented Guatemalans between August 2015 and June 2019 who said they worked at the plant.
PH Food and A&B
In the affidavit, Williams states that two of the plants ICE raided last week are owned by the same man: Huo You Liang, also known as “Victor” Liang. The chicken-processing plants are A&B, in Pelahatchie, Miss., and PH Food, in Morton, Miss.
A man who answered the phone at PH Food on Thursday asked whether a reporter was calling and before hanging up said he could not answer questions. A&B did not respond to requests for comment.
PH Food, which lost dozens of workers to arrest Aug. 7, laid off another 100 workers on Monday without explanation, attorneys for several workers told The Post. It is unclear whether the layoffs are related to the raid. Former employees and their allies gathered in a Morton park on Tuesday for a demonstration.
In February, an employee at PH Food gave immigration officials information showing that both plants were employing workers without legal documentation and that they use a payroll company in Louisiana to file the paperwork and shift the blame.
In May, officials recorded a conversation between the informant and Heather Carrillo, whom the affidavit lists as the secretary responsible for new employee paperwork at both plants. Carrillo told the informant that if immigration authorities had questions, she would direct them to Shreveport, La., where the payroll company is located, the affidavit states.
In May, immigration officials reviewed E-Verify records for the names and Social Security numbers given by 20 PH Food employees. They found that neither PH Foods nor its payroll provider had checked E-Verify for those names, even though the companies searched 1,000 other names in the system.
The Louisiana payroll company — PMI Resource — as well as PH Food and A&B “do not verify the authenticity of their documents,” according to the affidavit. Although E-Verify is federally a voluntary system, Mississippi state law requires companies to use E-Verify.
Despite the affidavit’s allegation that at least 20 employees’ names were not put through E-Verify, Carrillo told The Post last week that the business uses E-Verify in hiring. A woman who answered the phone at PMI Resource on Wednesday declined to answer questions.
Both the informant and an undocumented employee said 70 of 80 total employees at A & B’s plant were undocumented immigrants, most from Guatemala and a few from Mexico. The affidavit states that 224 of 240 PH Food workers are “suspected to be” undocumented, with 22 employees at the two plants enrolled in ICE’s electronic-monitoring program.
Pearl River Foods
The fifth company whose employees were swept up in the ICE raids, Pearl River Foods, opened its plant in Carthage, Miss., two years ago, and its success has been touted by the state’s governor.
When the Carthage plant handed over information about its 337 employees to immigration authorities in February, investigators allege they found some employees using the names and Social Security numbers of other people, including the deceased. Three months later, when ICE asked for the plant’s E-Verify list, 306 employees were listed as having been previously searched in the system.
The affidavit said 19 undocumented employees were enrolled in the electronic-monitoring program.
Pearl River opened its $2 million chicken-processing plant in 2017 and created 600 jobs within a year, according to a news release by the state economic development authority.
“The addition of so many new jobs by Pearl River Foods in Leake County speaks to the company’s commitment to doing business in Mississippi and to its strong belief in the people of our great state,” Gov. Phil Bryant (R) said at the time.
The business writes Facebook posts in English and Spanish and received an award in June from the state for its contributions to economic development. Pearl River Foods did not respond to requests for comment, and its Facebook page was no longer publicly available as of Thursday.