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Swift and Co. raids may have lasting implications

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Swift plant
Swift plant sign in Worthington
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Long before the federal agents arrived at the plant gates Swift officials searched for a way out. 

The meatpacker had good reason for that course of action. It has a predominantly immigrant work force at its six plants, including a pork operation in Worthington in southwest Minnesota.   

The University of Northern Iowa's Mark Grey has followed changes in the meatpacking industry for years.  He says with so many non-citizens working the slaughter line, any kind of immigration action almost certainly means downtime.  

ICE buses
A line of ICE buses lined up in the parking lot of the Swift and Company meatpacking plant in Worthington. Federal officials raided the plant and five others across the country in an ID fraud sting.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"Even if you do whatever you can to make sure that your work force is legitimate, you don't want to lose that productivity,"  says Grey.  "You're losing millions and millions of dollars."

Grey says by late October the company knew the raid was imminent.  Swift began action on several fronts.  

The first was public.  Swift launched an unprecedented advertising campaign in Worthington area newspapers.  The full page ads announced "We're looking for a few good men and women."   

Many workers at the plant now believe Swift was trying to build up a list of potential workers as a safeguard against an immigration action.  The ads announced a new starting wage; $11.50 an hour, roughly a one dollar boost.    

While this public campaign was taking place, Swift was also busy behind the scenes.  Mark Grey says when Swift found out about the raid it took a second unprecedented step.

"What happened this time was very interesting,"  says Grey.  "Of course Swift knew that these actions were on their way.  So what they did is they actively tried to block them."

That's a change from the past.   Grey says usually immigration raid details like date and duration are worked out in advance between the government and the meatpacker.   Companies went along to avoid possible prosecution for harboring illegal immigrants.  This time, Swift was an unwilling partner.  

Two weeks before the December 12th raid the company went to court.  In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Amarillo, Texas the company said the impending raid represented a broken government promise.  

For the last 10 years Swift has participated in a special federal program to catch illegal job applicants.  Under the program, the company compared an applicant's social security number to the federal data base to determine if it's authentic.  

For much of this year the government used information gathered by Swift in that program to build a case for the December raid.  One goal was to catch workers who used real, but stolen social security numbers.  

Swift lawyers said federal statute prohibits the government from imposing penalties on the company for data gathered in the special federal program.   

On December 7th Judge Mary Lou Robinson ruled against Swift.   Five days later the federal agents arrived.

"I think this was a shot across the bow for the industry,"  says Mark Grey of the University of Northern Iowa.  "If you're hiring illegal immigrants whether you admit it or not we still have the authority to come in and take them out."

Grey says as a result of the Swift raid he expects more companies to fight immigration actions.  

Many may have good reason to do it.   

Just how important immigrant labor is for meatpackers is demonstrated in Swift's court filings.  At one point the company told the federal judge as much as 40 percent of it's work force at the six plants might be removed in the federal raid.   The final result was under 10 percent.  

Still the company's original number is a good indicator how important illegal immigrants are in the production of meat in the U.S.