Friends, coworkers and family watch as U.S. immigration officials raid several Mississippi food processing plants, including this Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. The early morning raids were part of a large-scale operation targeting owners as well as undocumented employees. Photo by Rogelio V. Solis via AP
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Six of seven Mississippi chicken processing plants raided Wednesday were "willfully and unlawfully" employing people who lacked authorization to work in the United States, including workers wearing electronic monitoring bracelets at work for previous immigration violations, according to unsealed court documents.
Federal investigators behind the biggest immigration raid in a decade relied on confidential informants inside the plants in addition to data from the monitoring bracelets to help make their case, according to the documents.
The sworn statements supported the search warrants that led a judge to authorize Wednesday's raids, and aren't official charges, but give the first detailed look at the evidence involved in what Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have described as a yearlong investigation.
Officials arrested 680 people during Wednesday's operation targeting seven chicken processing plants in Mississippi.
The statements allege that managers at two processing plants owned by the same Chinese man appeared to be actively participating in fraud. They also show that supervisors at other plants at least turned a blind eye to evidence strongly suggesting job applicants were using fraudulent documents and stolen or made-up Social Security numbers.
The documents say federal officials have evidence from electronic monitoring bracelets that people who already had been arrested for immigration violations and weren't allowed to work in the United States were working at all seven plants that were raided.
The number of criminal convictions for hiring people without documents has historically been low because prosecutors must prove employers knowingly hired someone in the United States illegally. Employers often say they were fooled by fraudulent documents.
From October 2018 to May there were eight new prosecutions for hiring people working illegally and four new convictions nationwide. Among those who have been sentenced to prison are the owner of an Iowa meatpacking plant that was raided in 2008 and owner of a Tennessee meatpacking plant raided last year.
Companies can also face administrative fines based on audits of I-9 forms, which American employees fill out when they're hired, presenting documents meant to prove they can legally work in the country. Those audits of I-9 forms could also be a step toward criminal prosecution.
Investigators allege the most brazen fraud took place at two smaller chicken processing plants — PH Food Inc. in Morton and A&B Inc. in Pelahatchie. Sworn statements identify Huo You Liang of California, known to his Mississippi employees as Victor, as the owner of both.
A PH Food employee, acting as a confidential informant, told Homeland Security investigators that the vast majority of the 240 employees at PH's plant in Morton and the 80 employees at A&B's plant in Pelahatchie didn't have proper work documents, including many Guatemalans.
The informant told investigators that employees used their real names, combined with made-up Social Security numbers, to apply for jobs at PH and A&B. "The payroll companies, as well as PH Food Inc. and A&B Inc. do not verify the authenticity of their documents," the informant told investigators. Mississippi state law requires employers to check documents using E-Verify, an online federal verification system that is otherwise voluntary.
For example, ICE officers arrested Osiel Avila-Parra, a Mexican citizen in the United States illegally, as he was leaving PH Food in April, and found a PH Food payroll check stub in Avila's name.
Calls to A&B and PH Food on Friday went unanswered. A man who identified himself Thursday to the Clarion Ledger as Jun Lian said the plant hoped to reopen Friday. YanJung Liang is the registered president of PH, while Wei Bin Liang is the registered president of A&B. It's unclear if those two are related to Huo You Liang.
The evidence also included a video and audio conversation involving secretary Heather Carrillo and the informant, recorded May 14 at PH in Morton. A summary presented in court papers says, "Carrillo said that she was looking for some 'papers' for 'Iris,' but 'Iris wasn't going anywhere because she was working with Victor (Huo You Liang) for a good time (duration of employment).'" It says Carrillo said she was pretty sure A&B manager Salvador Delgado doesn't want it reported because she knew which of his employees are real and which are fraudulent.
The agent then notes that investigators believe Delgado has also been embezzling money from A&B by adding fraudulent names and Social Security numbers to the payroll and keeping the proceeds for himself.
The summary later says Carrillo didn't fear Delgado and "she knew he was dirty."
The warrants state PH Food uses Personnel Management Inc. of Shreveport, Louisiana, to process payroll and perform some human resources functions, and that investigators believed the use of the company was an attempt by Liang and Carrillo to minimize their responsibility for employing workers without legal authorization.
"Carrillo then stated that (it) is too much responsibility when a temporary company is not used," is how the warrant summarized the conversation.
Officials earlier stated that in addition to the seven Mississippi chicken plants, they were executing a search warrant at a Shreveport site on Wednesday. ICE spokesman Bryan Cox was unable to confirm that Personnel Management had been searched. The Louisiana company didn't respond immediately on Friday to a phone message and email seeking more information.