Squads of federal agents and state police officers swept through a pair of Eastern Shore poultry processing plants early yesterday, detaining 107 immigrants suspected of illegally crossing the U.S. border and making their way to Maryland.
The raids seemed to confirm what immigration agents have theorized all along -- that poultry plants on the Eastern Shore are major destinations for illegal immigrants and that smuggling rings are bringing them to Maryland.
Federal agents executed search warrants at both of the plants owned by Allen Family Foods Inc., according to the firm's president. He said he is unaware of any criminal probe and said his company works hard to verify the backgrounds of its employees.
The raid netted twice as many suspected illegal immigrants in one day as authorities pick up in an average year on the Eastern Shore.
More than 40 agents with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and state police raided the plants in Hurlock and Cordova shortly after the 7 a.m. shift change. They searched the slaughterhouses, checking papers of workers while they stood on poultry processing lines.
INS agents initially detained 124 suspected illegal workers, shipping them to the Wicomico County Detention Center. Seventeen immigrants were later released. Most of them were able to produce immigration documents. The others are juveniles who were turned over to their relatives.
The remaining 107 immigrants, most of them from Mexico and Guatemala, were to stay in the detention center overnight. Immigration supervisors said they summoned embassy officials from those countries last night to advise the suspected illegal workers.
The workers have two options: agree to voluntary deportations or request a formal hearing before an immigration judge.
Charles C. Allen III, president of the Seaford, Del.-based poultry company, said his firm does the best it can to verify the immigration documents of its employees.
"We do what we think is a diligent job in ascertaining the authenticity of the documents," Allen said last night. "We go through great lengths to make sure the documents are official, and our folks know they have to do this the right way."
There have been problems before at Allen Family Foods.
In 1994, the firm paid a $42,000 fine for violating immigration verification laws at its Cordova plant, one of three processing plants the company runs on the Eastern Shore -- two in Maryland and one in Delaware. The company also operates a hatchery in Maryland and two hatcheries and a feed mill in Delaware.
L The poultry is sold under the Allen label on the East Coast.
Under the 1986 U.S. Immigration Reformation and Control Act, employers must establish the identity and eligibility of workers before hiring them. If the recordkeeping does not exist or is absent, employers can be fined $100 to $1,000 per worker.
If INS agents can show that a company knowingly hired an illegal immigrant, the employer can be fined $250 to $10,000 per worker. Employers who repeatedly violate the law can face felony prosecutions.
If agents can prove company supervisors are part of a broader scheme to import illegal workers, they can face smuggling charges.
Federal agents and prosecutors were tight-lipped about the raids yesterday, declining to say whether they were connected to the crash of a van carrying 40 suspected illegal immigrants on the Bay Bridge in February. Federal agents at the time said the immigrants appeared to be heading to poultry processing plants on the Delmarva Peninsula.
The agents and prosecutors also refused to say whether the raids are part of a wider criminal probe into how the immigrants arrested yesterday were smuggled into Maryland and wound up working at Allen Family Foods.
"Talk to the U.S. Attorney's Office," said Benedict J. Ferro, director of the INS in the Baltimore district.
"I can't say anything," U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said.
The president of Allen Family Foods said his company was served with federal search warrants but he has not received grand jury subpoenas seeking company records.
INS agents have been cracking down on employers who hire illegal workers as part of a broader strategy to stop the flow of immigrants across the southern border of the United States.
On Monday, the agency announced that 27 restaurants, most of them in Montgomery County, had been fined $154,000 for hiring illegal workers. Earlier this year, agents conducted a series of well-publicized raids -- including one at a construction site at Fort Meade and another at an asbestos removal project at the Fallon Federal Building at Hopkins Plaza.
Each year, INS agents arrest about 50 illegal immigrants on the Eastern Shore. In a raid last summer, agents arrested 42 illegal workers at the Showell Poultry plant in Worcester County. So many illegal immigrants have wound up on the Eastern Shore that INS supervisors came up with a plan to help companies conduct employment background checks.
As part of the national pilot program, companies such as Allen Family Foods will be able to sign on to an INS data base to check the immigration status of potential employees. But the INS has not yet brought the data base online.
"We're really trying to work with the INS," Allen said. "I'll be glad when we finally resolve this."
Pub Date: 8/29/96