Plant is called focus of immigration probe Shore employer denies knowing of illegal workers

April 01, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- Although Tuesday's surprise sweep of an Eastern Shore chicken processing plant netted 56 suspected illegal aliens, federal agents said yesterday that their target is the company that owns the plant: Allen Family Foods Inc.

"The emphasis is not on the alien," said Lou Nardi, acting deputy district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Baltimore. "The emphasis is on the employer. We're trying to determine his compliance with immigration laws."

Allen Family Foods could be fined $2,000 per alien and $1,000 for each employee paperwork violation should it be determined that the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants.

Frank Wilson, the plant's personnel director, said yesterday the company did not know aliens were part of its work force. "If the INS knew, I wish they'd told us," he said. "We'd have fired them." Mr. Wilson said Allen plans to fire the 56 people detained by the INS as well as 12 other workers that federal agents contend are illegal immigrants.

Allen, based in Seaford, Del., employs 830 hourly workers at its Cordova plant. Working two shifts a day, they kill, clean, cut up and package Shore-grown broilers. Most of the chickens are sold to the food-service industry under the brand names Delmarva and Sussex Farms.

With almost 7 percent of its work force suddenly missing, Mr. Wilson said the plant shifted workers to different jobs to stay in operation.

On Tuesday afternoon, seven INS special agents, who were backed up by Maryland State Police from the Easton barracks, raided the plant in Cordova, a small crossroads town in upper Talbot County.

More than 60 suspected aliens were taken into custody, but 10 people were later released after they were able to produce identification papers and valid Social Security cards, said Thomas Perryman, the agent in charge of the raid.

He said most of those arrested were from Mexico and Guatemala.

Mr. Nardi described the raid as "one of the largest we've been involved in." Although agents were armed and the suspected aliens were searched for weapons, the raid went smoothly.

"We didn't have anybody try to run. We didn't have anybody try to fight us," said Mr. Perryman.

Most of the workers detained are between 20 and 30 years old, Mr. Perryman said

"I always say we seem to be arresting the youth of another country," he said. The hourly wages of $5 to $7 are much higher than the workers would earn in their native countries.

Authorities believe many came to the Delmarva Peninsula as migrant farmers to pick summer crops and decided to remain.

Residents of Cordova described the suspected aliens as "polite people," who come to work early in the morning and return quickly to their homes in Delaware or elsewhere on the Eastern Shore.

"They're excellent workers," said one Allen employee.

One Cordova businesswoman praised the immigrants' willingness to take menial positions but said she wished some of the area's unemployed would fill the jobs.

Mr. Perryman said Immigration and Naturalization began considering a raid of the Cordova plant after it learned from police in Hurlock that two illegal immigrants arrested Dec. 25 said they were employed there. He said the agency got several anonymous complaints this year that the plant illegally hired Hispanic aliens.

On March 26, a U.S. District Court judge signed a search and seizure warrant authorizing the agency to raid the plant, take into custody suspected aliens and seize payroll records.

After the raid, agents took the suspected aliens in buses to the Easton Police Department to be interviewed. Mr. Perryman said 38 males were taken to the Wicomico County Detention Center outside Salisbury and detained overnight. One juvenile and 17 women were released in Talbot County because the INS unit in Wicomico does not have separate facilities for females or juveniles.

All of the suspected aliens were scheduled to have been released by late yesterday after INS agents took their fingerprints and brought formal charges against them, according to Mr. Perryman. They are not eligible for government-funded counsel, but they were given a list of lawyers and charitable groups that donate legal services to immigrants.

In most cases, an alien who is subject to being deported can choose to leave immediately or fight it through the courts, according to Mr. Nardi. If the individual decides to fight deportation, he or she becomes eligible for a temporary work permit.

The irony of INS regulations, said Mr. Perryman, is that an Allen worker arrested Tuesday could seek to be returned to his job at the plant as soon as he receives his temporary work authorization.

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