Illegal workers arrested

69 immigrants held in raids targeting city staffing firm

eight businesses affected

March 30, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,sun reporter

Federal agents arrested 69 employees in raids yesterday on Baltimore area businesses -- including sportswear fashion maker Under Armour Inc. -- that officials said employed illegal immigrants provided by a temporary employment agency.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement targeted Jones Industrial Network, a staffing company downtown, and seized $630,000 from its bank account as agents hauled off workers from eight local businesses in buses and vans.

The raids come a day after a federal judge imposed a five-month prison sentence on the owner of local Japanese restaurants for hiring illegal workers. The raids are part of a national effort to dissuade employers from violating federal immigration law.

Federal officials said their investigation focuses on the temp agency. They said none of the other businesses -- including Under Armour and Dixie Printing and Packaging Corp. -- is a target.

But the morning raids around the city thrust the companies into an unflattering spotlight. Under Armour is a Baltimore success story, having grown from a basement operation started by Kevin Plank more than a decade ago to a multimillion-dollar international company. Wall Street often praises Under Armour for its innovative products -- athletic wear that wicks away sweat from the body.

A lawyer for Under Armour declined to be interviewed. A spokesman issued a statement saying, "Under Armour is cooperating in a Department of Homeland Security investigation into a temporary employment agency located in Baltimore. Law enforcement officials have told Under Armour that they are not a target of this investigation. Under Armour is considering pursuing appropriate legal action against the temporary agency."

Jones Industrial Network executives were not arrested in the raid or charged with a crime, but immigration officials said they have not ruled out criminal charges.

A receptionist for Jones, whose Baltimore office near the Inner Harbor was dark with a "closed" sign taped to the window yesterday afternoon, said the company had no comment. Jones also has an office in Arlington, Va.

According to the company's Internet site, Jones has the ability to send hundreds of workers to a workplace at once. The company has done work for the Maryland Department of Education and for the State Highway Administration.

Immigration officials would not say whether Jones intentionally hired illegal workers. The arrested workers toiled mostly as manual labors, immigration officials said.

Immigration officials said the investigation began in 2006 when they received information regarding temporary employment agencies providing illegal immigrants to work to unknowing companies in the city.

The immigration agency said Jones Industrial Network was suspected of providing illegal workers to the port of Baltimore, which drew the attention of the federal government.

"The integrity of those facilities is a priority for us. Illegal individuals working and having access to our international ports is a major security vulnerability," Special Agent James Dinkins said at a news conference.

Many of the detainees are from Central American countries, including El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. They are being held at the York County Prison in Pennsylvania and the Dorchester County and Worcester County detention centers, immigration officials said.

By late afternoon, word of the arrests spread throughout the city's Latino community, and advocacy groups held a news conference to denounce the arrests.

"We cannot wait any more and stand by the side while our community is being demoralized, breaking apart, divided by a broken law, which is this immigration law," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, a spokesman for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement based in Washington. "We don't believe this is right. We don't believe this is the way you view America."

Ruiz was joined by about three dozen mostly Spanish-speaking people outside Jones' headquarters. Those saying they were related to people arrested spoke, including the sister of a 4-month-old baby who said their mother was among those detained.

Immigration officials said detainees with dependents could be released with supervision. Dinkins said the detainees are asked four times throughout processing whether they have dependent children, and he said 20 of the people detained yesterday might qualify for humanitarian release.

Representatives of CASA of Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy organization though, were still critical of the process.

"We want fair and comprehensive immigration reform now which does not terrorize our community," said Christy Swanson, director of services of CASA. "Their families are being asked to live in terror without knowing what will happen next. We're calling for a moratorium on deportation and ICE raids while we firmly and fairly debate the need for comprehensive immigration reform."

A judge will ultimately determine whether any of the detainees would be removed from the country.

Other companies raided yesterday were: Tessco Technology, BP Castro, Baltimore Metal and Commodities of Baltimore County; C Steinweg, Beacon Stevedoring and Pritchard Brown of Baltimore.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker contributed to this article.

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