NEW YORK - Families are still scrambling to get information about their loved ones a week after U.S. immigration agents arrested over 1,000 workers at meatpacking plants in six states in a massive operation targeting people working with false documents.
"A lot of people still don't know where they are," Olivia Figueroa, who runs a small grocery store in Worthington, Minnesota, told IPS. Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a hotline for family members to inquire about detainees, Figueroa said the information given is often contradictory.
Figueroa's husband works at the Swift pork plant in Worthington, and he says production lines are slow because of missing employees. Figueroa said there are still workers who haven't reported to the plant because they are afraid of another raid.
On Dec. 12, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents swept in on Swift & Co. meat processing plants in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Iowa and Minnesota. Production lines stopped as thousands of workers were asked to provide proof of legal residency or citizenship. ICE said the raid was part of an investigation into a "massive identity theft scheme that has victimised hundreds of U.S. citizens".
Within hours, ICE had arrested 1,282 workers on administrative immigration violations. Thus far, 144 people have been criminally charged for identity theft as well as other crimes such as illegal reentry to the United States.
The raids have reignited the debates about immigration reform that dominated the political landscape earlier in the year, but did not result in Congressional action.
The fault lines between those who advocate for the legalisation of millions of undocumented workers and those fighting for stricter enforcement of immigration laws have been brought into relief by last week's raids.
"It's just a front for the federal government to perform a ridiculous act coming in in full riot gear and terrorising the Latino community," said Sylvia Martinez, director of the advocacy group Latinos Unidos in Greeley, Colorado.
On the other side are people like Mike McGarry, the acting director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, a group favouring tighter control of illegal immigration. He says the raids are a sign that the federal government is taking long overdue action.
"The meatpacking industry is notorious for winking at illegal immigration," he said, adding that raids by government agents can have a wider impact.
"You have consistently high-profile raids, they don't have to be big, but symbolically it's important," he said. "People do get discouraged and do leave the country."
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which represents workers at Swift meat processing facilities nationally, has organised food drives and legal support for their members who were arrested by ICE.
Darin Rehnelt, a UFCW representative in Worthington, where 230 workers were arrested, said the union hall has become ground zero for support operations for families. On Sunday, seven tonnes of donated food arrived from Minneapolis.
While some members of the community have been vocal in their approval of the raids, Rehnelt said many others have poured out support for the workers.
"There are some bad apples, but a lot of the churches have been really fantastic," he said.
It could take weeks for federal judges to hear all the cases, since each person's situation is different. In the meantime, the UFCW has filed suits against the ICE for civil and constitutional rights violations.
"They were not responsive to civil liberties, not giving access to union representatives or lawyers," said Jill Cashen, a UFCW spokesperson.
"We've been doing triage in human misery," said John Keller, an immigration attorney in Minneapolis. It has been difficult for lawyers to reach detainees, he told IPS, and many children are still wondering when they'll see their parents again.
Most of the estimated 600 people originally held in Camp Dodge, Iowa were removed before attorneys could get access to them, Keller said.
"It happened extremely quickly," he said. "By the time enough political pressure and lawsuits opened the gates, only 90 or 60 were left."
Tim Counts, an ICE spokesman based in Minnesota, said some detainees were given the option to sign voluntary departure forms, which waives the right to appear before an immigration judge, and results in immediate removal from the United States.
Advocates say detainees were not allowed to consult with an attorney before signing. In Marshalltown, Iowa, where 90 workers were arrested from the Swift plant, Sister Christina of St. Mary's Hispanic Ministry said many arrestees were sent to Mexico almost immediately.
"They had no way to contact anyone. They wouldn't let us in. We tried to go on Wednesday but we were turned away at the gate," she said in an interview. "They were taken on Tuesday, and by Thursday, they were already calling from Mexico."
"There has to be a better way," said community activist Sylvia Martinez. "It's beyond just immigration, it's about civil rights."
Swift, the world's second-largest beef and pork processor, has said it was surprised by last week's raid, and said in a press release that it felt the government's action violated agreements with the company. Its production is down which hurts suppliers and customers, though the company said it will be able to recover in the long term.
Since 1997, Swift has participated in a federal worker authorisation programme, known as Basic Pilot, in which the names and social security numbers of potential hires are run through government databases for verification.
ICE spokesman Tim Counts said that Swift has not been charged with anything and that "the Basic Pilot programme was never meant to be a silver bullet to catch every single illegal alien."
Basic Pilot checks names and social security numbers against federal databases to see if they match. However, the federal databases are not infallible and discrepancies are not necessarily indicative of any illegal activity.
It is unclear how many workers will eventually be charged with identity fraud.
© 2007 Inter Press Service