Federal agents on Tuesday raided the offices of a Portland food processing plant suspected of employing hundreds of illegal workers who used Social Security numbers that belonged to other people or were made up.
More than 165 workers were detained to be processed for possible deportation, officials said, and three people were indicted on immigration, illegal documents and identity theft charges.
The detained workers were being sent to a processing facility in Tukwila, Wash., before they are transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., pending an appearance before an immigration judge. More than 30, however, were released based on humanitarian concerns with a notice to appear, officials said.
Portland Mayor Tom Potter criticized the raids. The three arrests were understandable, he said, but "to go after local workers who are here to support their families while filling the demands of local businesses for their labor is bad policy."
Leigh Winchell, the special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement regional office in Seattle, responded by saying he sympathized with the mayor and the families affected by the raid. He also noted that Potter is a former police chief who has faced similar situations.
"The mayor is former law enforcement and he understands that we don't always necessarily agree with the laws placed in front of us," Winchell said. "I don't make the laws. I enforce the laws."
But, Winchell added, "If we have a need to change those laws, it's up to Congress and Washington, D.C., to come up with a comprehensive approach to immigration reform."
According to an affidavit filed by Maximillian Trimm, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a check of employee records at one point showed that only 48 of nearly 600 workers at the Fresh Del Monte Produce fruit and vegetable processing plant had valid Social Security numbers.
The raid Tuesday involved fewer than 600 workers because of seasonal employment changes and shift work, Winchell said.
He also said the timing of the raid was decided about a month ago and had "absolutely nothing" to do with the immigration reform debate in Congress this week.
An official at Fresh Del Monte Produce Co. headquarters in Coral Gables, Fla., said the company could not comment until federal investigators provide it with more information.
The three indicted were Jose de Jesus Zarazua-Lopez, accused of re-entering the United States illegally after being convicted of heroin charges and deported to Mexico; Jose Dejesus Buenrostro, accused of encouraging an illegal immigrant; and Margarita Amezcua-Salvador, accused of possessing counterfeit alien registration documents, identity theft, selling a Social Security card, and encouraging an illegal immigrant.
The raid at American Staffing Resources Inc. offices at the plant was based on an investigation by ICE and the Social Security Administration that began in January, officials said.
Separate American Staffing offices also were searched, along with a Fresh Del Monte office, officials said.
A federal judge authorized agents to search for evidence of violations such as hiring illegal aliens, identity theft and Social Security fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney's office in Portland.
Federal prosecutors said that 20 of the Social Security numbers being misused belonged to people 60 or older, and that 29 belonged to dead people.
CAUSA Oregon, an immigration rights group, called the raids inhumane.
"The Del Monte workers and their families are an integral part of the Oregon community and economy, and our immigration policy must reflect this reality," the group said in a statement.
Dennise Zavala-Diaz, standing outside the plant in tears, said she had an aunt who worked there.
"It's not fair," Zavala-Diaz said. "They're hardworking people. They're only here to make money to put food in their mouths. They're not hurting anybody."
Potter spokesman John Doussard said the city's Police Bureau had been given a heads-up about the raids but did not participate. Potter said in a statement that a city crisis response team would help the families of the workers.
Potter has been at odds with federal security officials before. In 2005, he and other City Council members voted to remove Portland police from a terrorism task force because the FBI refused to give him the security clearance he said he needed for full oversight of city officers.
Doussard said Potter's criticism Tuesday wasn't related to the 2005 decision.
Immigration raid nets 165 workers