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Immigration Crackdown Results in 1,300 Arrests

December 13, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Federal officials said today that yesterday’s immigration raids at six meatpacking plants were the largest workplace crackdown ever. Each of the plants in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Utah is owned by Swift and Company, the nation’s second-largest beef producer.

Nearly 1,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, some dressed in riot gear, rounded up 1,282 workers, many of them illegal immigrants who allegedly used phony documents to get their jobs.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, Homeland Security Secretary: Good morning, everybody.

GWEN IFILL: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said some of the documents included stolen Social Security numbers.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Now, this is not only a case about illegal immigration, which is bad enough; it’s a case about identity theft and violation of the privacy rights and the economic rights of innocent Americans.

GWEN IFILL: Sixty-five of those bused away from the plants yesterday were charged with identity theft, the rest on immigration violations. One unidentified man spoke outside the Swift plant in Marshalltown, Iowa.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everybody has to do what they have to do to make a living. I agree with that, that it’s wrong, but at the same time it’s not because, you know, we are human beings.

GWEN IFILL: The Swift plants were up and running again today, but company President Sam Rovit, in a statement, criticized the arrests, saying they “raised serious questions as to the government’s possible violation of individual workers’ civil rights.”

And at least one, in Grand Island, Nebraska, local police refused to support the federal raid, fearing their participation would antagonize the Latino community.

But Secretary Chertoff said yesterday’s raids are just the beginning.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: The other thing that I’m hoping this is going to do is it’s going to be a deterrent to illegal workers. It’s going to cause them to say that, you know, “This happened in Swift; it could easily happen somewhere else.” In fact, I’m pretty much going to guarantee we’re going to keep bringing these cases.

GWEN IFILL: Immigration advocates have advised the arrested workers to remain silent and contact attorneys.

Cracking down on immigration

Mark Lauritsen
United Food & Commercial Workers Union
What has happened with these workers, though, is that all their representation was stripped away from them by the immigration folks.

GWEN IFILL: Now, two views on the immigration raids. In a moment, we'll hear from Julie Myers, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But we begin with Mark Lauritsen, vice president at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Welcome.

MARK LAURITSEN, United Food and Commercial Workers: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Today, I gather, the union filed papers in federal court in Denver, saying the arrests in Greeley, in particular, had violated constitutional rights. How?

MARK LAURITSEN: Well, first of all, if ICE is correct, that this is a...

GWEN IFILL: ICE being the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

MARK LAURITSEN: ... Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is correct that this is about identity theft, well, then every person has the rights under this Constitution where they have the right to an attorney, they have a right to representation.

But what really happened here yesterday morning, 13,000 people went to work. And they went to work expecting to work their day, and have their children at school, and have their lives go as normal.

But what really happened here was, as they were at work, armed agents stormed those plants, locked those gates, wouldn't let people in, wouldn't let people out, in the course of their raid, you know, segregated people off. Armed agents were on tables ordering people that, if you were from one country you go to one part of this plant. If you were from another, you go to another.

And what was that all for? According to the court documents that I've seen today that were just recently unsealed, it was so ICE could apprehend 170 alleged identity theft perpetrators. They went in for 170 people that they knew the names of, but instead of going in and extracting the 170, they shook up 13,000 families and communities, stripped families apart, literally.

GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you this. These family and communities, would you agree that many of them were here illegally and, therefore, working illegally?

MARK LAURITSEN: We don't know that; we don't know what their status was. What I know, as a representative of people that work for a living, is that, if they're employed where there's a collective bargaining agreement, I have a job, and our local unions have a job to represent them, regardless, and that's what the law says. Regardless of any documentation status, I represent them.

GWEN IFILL: So it's up to the company to determine whether these people are working legally or not?

MARK LAURITSEN: What has happened with these workers, though, is that all their representation was stripped away from them by the immigration folks. They came in, and these folks have been shipped to parts of this country unknown. Their family members do not know where they are.

And they've been denied the basic right in this country of representation, which could have came from our representatives or it could have came from the attorneys that we had on site willing to represent these folks.

GWEN IFILL: I guess what I'm trying to get to the bottom of is the whole question of whether, in fact, laws were being broken by the very fact that these people were working in these plants. This is not something that union concerns itself with?

MARK LAURITSEN: If there were laws being broken, if ICE knew there were 170 named people that they suspected were guilty of identity theft, well, then what they should have done was extracted the 170, not ripped apart families, and shake up 13,000 people, and victimize communities that will take years and years and years for recovery from this activity, and families and children that are going to be scarred for life.

In Texas, as late as 10:00 last night, I got a report from our local union in Texas that in one small community, the school district still held 25 children, some as young as 6 years old, because their parents were not around to pick them up. They were in a bus some place to points unknown.

In another district in Texas, we had 19 children that were being held by the school district until we could arrange to have friends and family pick them up.

I had a student in Grand Island, Nebraska, that had no one. And because of the generosity of one of their teachers, the teacher took them home that night because there was no one there.

Questioning immigration reform

Mark Lauritsen
United Food & Commercial Workers Union
The Republican Congress promised us that they would have comprehensive immigration reform. It never came. Had we had that reform, maybe this never would have happened.

GWEN IFILL: So what is appropriate?

MARK LAURITSEN: Is it really worth -- the question is, was it worth this kind of force to get that 170 people that they knew?

GWEN IFILL: In your opinion, then, what is the appropriate way for the government to have gone about -- if it was going to go about enforcing, not only identity theft laws, but also immigration laws?

MARK LAURITSEN: When this boils down -- I know this is an emotional issue for everyone in this country -- but at the end of the day, what this boils down to, and it dramatically points to the fact that this country needs comprehensive immigration reform. It needs it, and it needs it faster than ever.

The Republican Congress promised us that they would have comprehensive immigration reform. It never came. Had we had that reform, maybe this never would have happened.

But what we need is reform that allows people an orderly process to come into this country, an orderly process to get here. For those that are here, we need an orderly process that makes it so they can gain legal status in this country. And we need to have comprehensive reform that protects workers in their work site.

GWEN IFILL: Until...

MARK LAURITSEN: Comprehensive immigration reform that covers those three points is what's needed more than ever right now in this country today. And the actions that took place yesterday prove it more than anything else. There was no need that we have to have armed agents go in and disrupt 13,000 people, six communities, strip families apart, for 170 alleged identity thefts.

GWEN IFILL: Barring that, assuming that today that comprehensive reform is not in place, do you believe that, in the shops that you represent, it's considered to be an open secret that a lot of people are working there without proper documentation?

MARK LAURITSEN: I don't know about the documentation; I know about the meatpacking industry. Throughout its history, it was built on immigrant workers. The industry has always relied on the immigrant workforce, be it the Polish, the Danish, the Italians that did it earlier in generations, and it's always going to be an immigrant workforce that does that.

These are people that have worked at these plants -- those are humans that are working at that plant -- the actions did not need to be that heavy and severe.

More importantly, go back to the base issue here. If we would have had comprehensive immigration reform when it was promised to us, and promised to the American people, we would have had a very good potential that this never would have took place.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Mark Lauritsen, thank you very much.

MARK LAURITSEN: Thank you.

Links to identity theft

Julie Myers
Immigration & Customs Enforcement
Each and every one of the individuals that were arrested yesterday on administrative charges was using a stolen, a real Social Security number of a U.S. citizen.

GWEN IFILL: And now to Julie Myers, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Your response?

JULIE MYERS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Well, I agree. We need comprehensive immigration reform.

Yesterday's actions, however, were about ICE enforcing the law. Each and every one of the individuals that were arrested yesterday on administrative charges was using a stolen, a real Social Security number of a U.S. citizen.

We took appropriate action; we behaved appropriately. And until the law changes, we're here to enforce it.

GWEN IFILL: I was confused about the identity theft argument. There were 1,200, almost 1,300 people arrested; 65 of them -- maybe 5 percent of them -- were charged with identity theft. Yet that was the emphasis today at your news conference about why this whole thing was being pursued. Was that the main impetus for this raid, this series of raids?

JULIE MYERS: Well, this action started as a worksite enforcement action. And as it was noted in your initial segment, it was the largest worksite enforcement action we've ever had.

GWEN IFILL: Enforcing what, immigration laws or...

JULIE MYERS: Enforcing immigration law. But what we're finding is that a number of people who are here illegally, working illegally, they used to use just phony documents. And now they're using real documents, documents of U.S. citizens who in many cases may not know they're being used. And that's providing real harm to these U.S. victims.

There was an example this morning about a victim who was pulled over and was arrested because someone who was working at a Swift plant had been using his Social Security number and got a criminal record under his name. These people have gone out, they've gotten telephone bills under their fake identities, and all sorts of problems.

GWEN IFILL: Is this an organized ring which has been trying to do this, that has been selling this stolen information, or is this just something which has sprung up over time?

JULIE MYERS: In the Swift instance, we actually found a number of different document vendors and document rings, and it's very important to us that we track down those rings and prosecute those individuals.

Last month in Minnesota, we tracked down one that was actually providing U.S. birth certificates for individuals from Puerto Rico and Social Security cards, and they were all ending up for individuals who then went to work at the Swift plants.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that Secretary Chertoff said today was he hoped that this sort of action would deter other people from thinking that they could come here and work in this manner. What evidence do you have that this works as a deterrent, this sort of raid?

JULIE MYERS: Well, we certainly see from employers that, because we're taking action, they're coming to us and they say, "Hey, we want to know how we can do the right thing. We know Basic Pilot is one good tool. What other things can we do?"

And we've posted on our Web site a number of best practices that companies can use, if they want to avoid having illegal aliens in their workforce, if they want to know, in fact, who it is they're employing.

Participants of basic pilot program

Julie Myers
Immigration & Customs Enforcement
At this point, we're focusing on the illegal aliens who have stolen the identities of U.S. citizens, as well as the document vendors that have supplied the rings.

GWEN IFILL: Describe Basic Pilot. That's which the companies voluntarily decide to actually compare Social Security numbers to a federal database. Is that about correct?

JULIE MYERS: That's right. That's right. And so if a company is using Basic Pilot, I'd go in the company to apply for a job. I'd give them my name, Social Security number, and date of birth. It's then sent and compared.

What Basic Pilot will do will tell you if the card and the number that I submit is valid. What it won't do is it won't tell you if I submit your name, and so it won't deal with those individuals who have stolen real identities.

GWEN IFILL: So Swift was participating in that program, and yet this happened. They estimate that 40 percent of their workforce could be affected. Why should any company participate in this kind of program if, in the end, they're still going to get raided and have their business disrupted?

JULIE MYERS: Well, it's important to note that Swift was not charged in this action, and Swift noted that 40 percent of their workforce could be affected because they were estimating that 40 percent of their workforce could be comprised of illegal aliens.

GWEN IFILL: Why wasn't Swift charged then?

JULIE MYERS: At this point, the investigation is ongoing. At this point, we're focusing on the illegal aliens who have stolen the identities of U.S. citizens, as well as the document vendors that have supplied the rings.

But I would note that the investigation is ongoing. Swift was cooperative yesterday, on the day of the raids, when we went into the plants. They were very helpful to us.

GWEN IFILL: This is a program which -- an investigation which has been under way for 10 months. Was there any thought and concern given to the fact that some families would be ripped apart, that some students would still be in school and unable to find their parents, or that there would be any kind of human fallout from this? Were their plans put in place to take that into account?

JULIE MYERS: Absolutely there were plans put into place to take into account the human factor, particularly the factor of those victims -- the U.S. citizens who were victimized by the illegal aliens working at the plants.

In addition, we have a toll-free number that we put together so that individuals could call in if they're worried about a family member.

We also asked each and every individual that we encountered whether or not they were the sole caregiver of a child. If so, if they told us they were the sole caregiver of a child, we made special accommodations for them so they could be released and care for that child.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Chertoff also said today that he thinks that a temporary guest-worker program is necessary, which is something the Bush administration has been pushing for. How would that program have cut down on the numbers that we saw in this raid today?

JULIE MYERS: Well, it depends on the nature of the temporary worker program that's structured. Some temporary worker programs might not allow individuals who stole identities of other individuals to be eligible. But assuming that it did, it would allow us to focus on criminal aliens, on individuals who are here who are not eligible for the temporary worker program.

We believe that having a temporary worker program would really provide a safety valve. Many industries have problems with illegal alien labor, and allowing those migrants who are here really to work to apply for some way to come out of the shadows, to use their real name, we think would be helpful to all involved.

GWEN IFILL: Realistically, where does that potential legislation stand right now?

JULIE MYERS: You may know that better than I do. We certainly are very hopeful that in the new Congress that maybe this is something that we can all work together on, as we try to find a way towards comprehensive immigration reform.

GWEN IFILL: Julie Myers, thank you very much.

JULIE MYERS: Thank you.