Tyson Foods Inc., one of the world's largest poultry processors, was indicted December 19, 2001, charged with 36 counts of recruiting illegal workers from Mexico and transporting them to 15 of Tyson's 57 poultry processing plants in the Midwest and South. According to the indictment, Tyson managers arranged with smugglers to pick up workers just inside the US border and paid the smugglers $100 to $200 a worker (the migrants also paid the smugglers a fee). Tyson then arranged transportation from the border to its plants.
On January 7, 2002, a former Tyson Foods employee, Amador Anchondo-Rascon, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to smuggling illegal immigrants into the country. He could face a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and forfeiture of any gains from the alleged conspiracy which began in 1994. Anchondao-Racon is a legal US resident and the judge told him that his sentence would include deportation. A May 20 sentencing hearing has been set. Six other former managers have also been charged.
The INS used undercover agents, wiretaps and paid informants in the two and a half-year investigation. The INS estimated that 25 percent of Midwestern meatpacking workers are not authorized to work in the US.
Tyson has 120,000 employees and annual sales of $11 billion; employment in the US meat and poultry processing industry is 400,000, so Tyson accounts for almost 30 percent of the industry's workers. According to the INS, Tyson sought to hire 2,000 unauthorized foreigners, usually in plants in rural locations. If convicted, Tyson could face fines exceeding $100 million, based on allegedly illegal profits derived from lower wages paid to the unauthorized workers and the company's willful exploitation of them.
The government alleged that Tyson "did cultivate a corporate culture in which the hiring of illegal alien workers" was condoned by management "to meet its production goals and cut its costs to maximize Tyson profits." The charges are "the first time INS has taken action against a company of Tyson's magnitude."
Tyson, like most meat processors, uses the INS's Basic Pilot program to verify the right to work of newly hired workers- employers submit the A-numbers of newly hired non-US citizens to INS for verification. However, the government alleges that "Tyson utilized workers that were hired and provided to Tyson by temporary service agencies that did not utilize the ... Basic Pilot Program, well knowing that most of these workers were unauthorized for employment within the United States."
Tyson said it would contest the charges; that they involved a handful of managers who had been operating outside of company policy and that the six Tyson employees charged had been dismissed or placed on administrative leave. In a 1996 statement, Tyson said: "The consequences of knowingly hiring illegal workers are quite simply too high for us to hire people without proper documentation."
The undercover operation was based on the work of a Mexican citizen who, while employed at Tyson, "functioned as an illegal recruiter, smuggler and coordinator of transportation for illegal aliens and a trafficker in fraudulent documents." The illegal recruitment allegedly began in October 1994, when a Tyson executive, referring to production problems at a Shelbyville, Tennessee plant, told subordinates, "That plant needs more Mexicans."
Tyson admitted that it used temporary employment agencies to obtain foreign workers, but denied responsibility for the violations committed by the agencies. For example, in 2001, 22 Chinese workers lost their temporary work visas less than nine months after arriving in the US to work at the Glen Allen, Virginia plant. Each worker had paid $10,000 to a Chinese company for the chance to work for as long as two years in jobs that paid $6 to $7 an hour.
The Tyson indictment raised questions about the personnel policies of Midwestern and southeastern meat and poultry processing firms. Shelbyville, Tennessee, a city of 16,000 that is 60 miles south of Nashville, is typical of the places with Tyson plants. The number of Hispanic residents rose from 92 in 1990 to 2,343 in 2000, and the 2000 number is considered an underestimate. Many Hispanics live in a trailer park near the Tyson plant. Similarly, in Noel, Missouri, Tyson has a plant employing 1,265 workers who start at $7 an hour.
Joseph R. Greene, the INS assistant commissioner in charge of investigations, said that the agency looks at issues such as whether the employment of illegal migrants unfairly depresses wages and whether employers are "conspiring and working with organized criminals? Are they putting people at risk in terms of their lives or their health and safety? Those are the kinds of questions I have to ask before we're going to commit the limited [sanctions enforcement] resources that we have."
In April 1999, the INS reached a $1.9-million settlement with Filiberto's, a chain of Mexican restaurants based in Phoenix that admitted recruiting undocumented workers, "the biggest fine for a work site enforcement case in US history." In 1997, nearly 200 illegal immigrants were arrested when the INS raided 15 Filiberto's restaurants..
In another case with broad implications, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in November 2001 ruled that a business may sue a competitor that competes unfairly by employing illegal alien workers under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute. Commercial Cleaning Services, a janitorial firm, sued Colin Service Systems, Inc. for operating an "illegal immigrant hiring scheme" that allowed Colin to underbid Commercial to win the right to clean commercial buildings.
The suit was prompted by Commercial's loss to Colin a contract to clean Pratt & Whitney facilities in Connecticut in the mid-1990s. Colin has about 4,000 employees, compared with 80 for Commercial, and paid a $1 million fine to the INS in March 1996 to settle charges that it unlawfully hired illegal workers. A federal district court dismissed the suit, but the Court of Appeals said that it can go forward.
In Los Angeles, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 814 complained that Loews Santa Monica Beach hotel unlawfully demanded proof of authorization to work from employees recalled after September 11 layoffs. Two employees were not rehired after they presented Social Security numbers that did not match those on file, according to HERE, which filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, a division of the Department of Justice created to protect workers from discrimination under employer sanctions laws.
Smuggling charges were filed in mid-December against a Los Angeles bus company, Golden State Transportation Co., which allegedly transported thousands of illegal migrants who had been smuggled across the border in Arizona and hidden in safe houses until they could be put on Golden State buses. Golden State drivers chose routes around Border Patrol checkpoints and traveled at night to avoid detection, according to the 39-count indictment. The INS targeted Golden State management, alleging that the bus company colluded with smugglers.
Nancy Cleeland and Stuart Silverstein, "Tyson Case Illustrates New Focus of INS Crackdown," Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2001. David Barboza, "Meatpackers' Profits Hinge on Pool of Immigrant Labor," New York Times, December 21, 2001. Robert L. Jackson, " Tyson Foods Is Indicted in Immigrant Smuggling," Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2001. Ken Ellingwood, "Indictments rock niche US industry," Los Angeles Times, December 12, 2001.