SALISBURY -- Relatives of 107 suspected illegal immigrants kept vigil yesterday outside the Wicomico County Detention Center as federal agents interviewed workers picked up in Wednesday morning raids through two Eastern Shore poultry processing plants.
Neither family members nor reporters were allowed to speak with the workers, who were taken from the Allen Family Foods plants in Cordova and Hurlock by federal immigration agents and held at the Detention Center here.
Orlando Fuentes, 25, a Guatemalan who works at an Easton golf course, said that if his Mexican wife, Carmela, 24, is sent home, he will probably ask that their two sons, both U.S. citizens, be sent along with her.
"I don't have time to give them the proper care," he said.
Fuentes, who has a temporary work permit as a political asylum applicant, said his wife had paid a smuggler -- called a "coyote" -- $900 to cross the Rio Grande River in January. She traveled with their oldest son, Carlos, 2 1/2 , to Maryland.
"The truth is, she was just trying to earn a living," Fuentes said. "For me, being undocumented isn't a crime; I don't know how it seems to others. It's worse if you rob people or sell drugs. Working to survive isn't a crime."
Immigration officials and lawyers say the 7 a.m. raids are part of a new strategy at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. INS supervisors are targeting firms that hire illegal workers, a move they hope will stop the flow of immigrants across the southern border of the nation.
The president of Allen Family Foods said yesterday that he believes federal agents could be targeting his plants because of the possibility that one or more of his employees may be part of a smuggling ring.
"We are beginning to wonder if there is, in fact, a smuggling ring in the area, if there is anybody in the company that's involved," Charles C. 'Chick' Allen III said. "We are thinking among ourselves that someone in the plant is involved."
Federal agents declined to discuss their investigation into how the immigrants found their way to the plants from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Colombia.
Tom Perryman, INS acting assistant director for investigations, said the immigrants now have two choices: return voluntarily to their countries of origin, or take their cases before an immigration judge and risk deportation.
Relatives worried yesterday that their loved ones might be sent home with only the clothes on their backs. Perryman said relatives may be allowed to visit family members today, once federal agents complete their interviews.
But yesterday, officers at the detention center forced those waiting outside to leave.
"We weren't doing nothing, just sitting around waiting for our family," said Maytee Ponce, a Puerto Rican whose Mexican husband, Israel, was being held at the center. "We've got family, too. We're people, a little bit darker, but we're people."
Ponce, who is four months pregnant, said many Eastern Shore poultry plants hire illegal workers who present false documents.
"Every plant is doing it," she said.
Family members said news of slaughterhouse job openings spreads by word of mouth.
"It's a very personal thing," said Felix Trinidad, a 28-year-old Guatemalan whose Mexican wife, Lucia Munoz, 29, was detained after the raids. "People go looking for work, and when they find it, there they stay."
"People come from all over," said Alfredo Reyna, 28, of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. His 32-year-old sister, Angela, also was arrested in the raids.
Many job openings
Immigration agents and lawyers say poultry slaughterhouses always have job openings.
"The employers on the Eastern Shore say they have a hard time finding people to do this kind of work," said Laura Reiff, president of the Washington chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association, which has a sent a team of volunteers to advise the detained workers.
"There's a grapevine in the Hispanic community," Reiff said. "It reaches down to Mexico and Latin America, and it's traveling to these little villages."
The influx of Latin American workers has quietly changed the face of the Eastern Shore. In Cordova, U.S. Postmaster Bud Haddaway said he does a steady business selling money orders to Allen Family Food workers, who then send the cash home to their families. Workers earn between $6 to $7 an hour at the plants, which process about 2.5 million chickens a week.
Harry Kirkwood, a worker atAllen's Cordova plant, estimated that immigrants make up 30 to 40 percent of the work force there, with Mexicans, Guatemalans and Koreans making up the largest groups.
Larry Merchant, human resources director for the Cordova plant, said the company asks foreign-born applicants for three forms of identification and does not knowingly hire illegal immigrants, which is against the law.
"Apparently, there are people out there making very good fake IDs," he said.
Perryman, the INS investigator, wouldn't say what prompted Wednesday's raids. He said the fact that Allen was fined $42,000 in 1994 for hiring illegal immigrants would not have been enough by itself to trigger another investigation.
Allen, the company president, speculated that someone in his firm may have attracted the attention of federal investigators.
"It bothers us to think there is something going on that we don't see," he said. "We're reading between the lines, trying to put it all together."
The poultry industry is one of the most notorious for hiring undocumented immigrants because working conditions are so difficult, immigration lawyers and federal agents said.
"Think about it: You're eviscerating chickens all day," said Michael Maggio, an immigration attorney. "It's basically blood, guts and gore."
To stop the migration of illegal workers to places such as Allen Family Foods, INS managers have decided to emphasize another strategy -- target the companies that place illegal immigrants on their payrolls, INS supervisors and immigration lawyers say.
"Yes, indeed, we are turning the screws on these employers," said Benedict J. Ferro, INS director of the Baltimore district. "We are focusing on those employers who are deliberately ignoring the law. We are going to give them some attention."
Maggio noted that the new strategy is being deployed during a presidential election year. In vote-rich states such as California, Texas and Florida, immigration has been a contentious, politically sensitive campaign issue.
"There is definitely a more energized effort," Maggio said. "This administration has decided they are going to put more heat on employers who hire undocumented workers."
Pub Date: 8/30/96