EASTON — EASTON -- Two days after they netted 56 suspected illegal aliens at a Talbot County chicken processing plant, federal agents came up empty-handed yesterday during a similar raid at a broiler plant in Dorchester County.
The reason? Company officials had already ordered 40 immigrant employees to stay home unless they could provide work credentials.
On Wednesday, the day after U.S. Immigration and Naturalization agents raided the Allen Family Foods Inc. plant in Cordova, officials at ConAgra Broiler Co. in Hurlock reviewed employee records for discrepancies.
Walt Casey, a ConAgra vice president for communications, said 50 of the plant's 490 employees were asked to provide at least two documents proving that they were authorized to hold jobs. All but 10 were unable to do so and were sent off company property, Mr. Casey said.
"We've given them 15 days to produce the documents," he said. "We don't know if they'll find their papers or not. If they don't, they will be dismissed, of course."
Mr. Casey speculated that like ConAgra, other Eastern Shore employers who rely upon immigrant labor checked their employment records as soon as they heard about Tuesday's raid at the Allen plant.
Plant officials on the Eastern Shore insist that companies adhere to federal hiring guidelines, but say some illegal workers manage to use fake identification cards and other documents to obtain work.
Don Crocetti, acting director of the INS Baltimore district, said agents knew word of the Allen raid would spread quickly. They suspected that illegal workers had decided on their own to stay away from the plant.
Mr. Crocetti said the INS had planned to conduct raids at other Eastern Shore plants, but operations have been suspended for now.
"They would be fruitless," he said, adding that INS forays onto the Eastern Shore are routine and will continue.
"We do it every year," he said. "They know we're coming. It's just a question of when."
Mr. Crocetti said chicken processing plants are not alone in being targeted for raids. Last year, agents arrested suspected aliens working on the boardwalk in Ocean City.
The ConAgra plant in Hurlock, which is one of northern Dorchester County's biggest employers, is one of three facilities the Nebraska-based company has on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Mr. Crocetti called Tuesday's Allen plant raid "one of our most productive hits." Armed with a search and seizure warrant, agents and state police swept through the plant, seized employee documents and interviewed and fingerprinted 56 workers, most from Mexico or Guatemala.
In most cases, an alien who is subject to being deported can choose to leave immediately or fight it through the courts. Companies found to have knowingly hired illegal immigrants can be fined as much as $2,000 per alien and up to $1,000 for each paperwork violation.
Arthur Brewer, a Baltimore attorney representing Allen, which is based in Delaware, said yesterday the company is cooperating with the INS investigation. He said company officials did not know any illegal aliens were working at the plant, which employs 830 hourly workers.
"We believe we are abiding by the law and will continue to abide by the law," he said.
Mr. Crocetti said the raids are useful in reminding employers to comply with federal immigration work guidelines. But, he added, even employers who screen foreign nationals for proper working credentials can be fooled with fake papers.
L "We don't expect employers to be document experts," he said.