CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Hundreds of U.S. immigration agents raided the Koch Foods Inc. chicken plant in Fairfield, Ohio, and arrested more than 160 employees as part of a criminal operation against illegal immigrants, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said on Tuesday.
“As of 2:45 p.m. (EDT) more than 180 Koch employees have been identified for further questioning and more than 160 have been administratively arrested for immigration violations,” ICE special agent in charge Brian Moskowitz told a news conference in Cincinnati.
Moskowitz said employees faced a range of charges including illegal reentry to the United States, identity theft, document fraud, social security fraud and forgery. Koch Foods was being investigated for federal crimes including encouraging, inducing or harboring illegal aliens.
ICE said in a statement the raid by more than 300 agents was “part of a two-year, ongoing ICE investigation based on evidence that Koch Foods may have knowingly hired illegal aliens at its poultry processing and packaging facility.”
The raid at Koch Foods, which produces chicken for export, food service and retail markets, began at 10 a.m. EDT. Moskowitz said simultaneous search warrants were executed at the plant near Cincinnati and Koch’s Chicago headquarters.
Calls to Koch Foods, based in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, were unanswered. Koch Foods is not affiliated with Wichita, Kansas,-based Koch Industries, the largest private company in the United States, a Koch Industries spokeswoman said.
Tim Bachman, development services director for the city of Fairfield, said the plant employs about 500 workers.
This month the Bush administration said it would increase scrutiny and impose heftier fines on U.S. businesses that employ illegal immigrants. The administration had lobbied Congress unsuccessfully for an overhaul of immigration laws.
The raid was the latest targeting businesses employing illegal workers. In December 2006, hundreds of employees were detained in raids at Swift & Co. meat plants in six states, part of a probe into identity theft involving illegal immigrants.
Many U.S. meat industry workers are immigrants, mainly Hispanics.
Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of illegal immigration, has lobbied Washington for better enforcement and deportation of undocumented workers.
“I’ve been saying for 2-1/2 years ‘We’re coming, ... don’t hire illegals, don’t violate the law,’” Jones told the news conference. “I personally have no sympathy for you whatsoever, None. Zero.”
A handful of protesters shouting “this is an outrage” tried to disrupt the news conference.
“These are working people, these are family people, they are keeping our economy growing. They should not be arrested. What’s happening to their children?” said Dan LaBotz, carrying a sign reading “Stop the attack on immigrant families.”
Immigration advocates in Cincinnati said the force used during the raids was terrifying the local community, including U.S.-born children who fear their immigrant parents will be taken away.
“I got a call from one woman this morning and her husband was just picked up at the chicken processing plant,” said Shelly Jarrett Bromberg, director of the Butler County Community Alliance.
She said officials believe raids “will send back others through fear. The children don’t understand and are now going home and asking if they’re going to be arrested.”
ICE said those who had been detained would be taken to a processing facility in the Cincinnati area and procedures to remove them from the United States would begin. But it noted that some may be released for humanitarian reasons — for example, the sole caregiver to children.
Additional reporting by Bob Burgdorfer and Andrew Stern in Chicago