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December 07, 2011 News » Cover Story

Swift Justice 

Cache Co. 5 years after immigration raid

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The company has acknowledged workforce turnover of 40 percent per year. Workers and union officials have estimated that it could be as high as 70 percent.

Keeping anything resembling a stable workforce in the plant after the raids has meant drawing a constant stream of new workers from other communities of desperation. In the past few years, that’s meant hiring from Salt Lake City’s ever- increasing—and extremely under- employed—population of refugees.

But that doesn’t appear to have been enough to return the plant to its pre-raid employment strength of 1,100 workers.

In 2010, the plant’s owners approached Gov. Gary Herbert’s office with a request for a tax subsidy for expansion. After reviewing the application, Herbert’s staff approved a $1.7 million post-performance tax rebate so the factory could grow its employee roster from “nearly 1,000” workers.

Michael Sullivan, the director of communications for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, stressed that the company was not just backfilling its workforce—it was investing $30 million into a new addition to the Hyrum plant, and that the company had committed to not just returning to pre-raid strength, but to creating several hundred additional jobs, each paying $28,000 or more a year.

“Plus they must have full benefits, health insurance, vacation, all that good stuff,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan says the company, which runs meat-processing plants across the United States, had other options for expansion. And, he says, JBS—which owns Swift & Co.—got a tougher look than most other applicants, given its history.

But Sullivan says his office doesn’t have a mechanism to determine whether the JBS workers have legitimate documents. That, he says, is a job for the feds.

Verification vs. Discrimination
It’s hard to say how many of the Hyrum slaughterhouse’s workers are still using fraudulent documents. And JBS officials tread carefully around the subject.

“We hire individuals who we believe to be authorized to work, and we have always done so,” says company spokeswoman Margaret McDonald.

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McDonald says the company is still caught between verification and anti-discrimination. In 2002, she noted, the Department of Justice tried to levy a $2.5 million fine against the company for digging too deeply into the status of new hires. Five years later, the company was targeted in the raids because Department of Homeland Security officials said it hadn’t done enough to keep illegal workers off its payroll. The raids cost the company tens of millions of dollars in lost production, sales and new hiring costs.

And it’s not inconceivable that ICE could be back.

In 2010, ICE initiated nearly 2,750 cases against businesses—more than doubling the number in 2008. But today the agency’s enforcement efforts are decidedly lower-profile. While businesses are still targeted for investigation, those suspected of using illegal labor are more likely to be hit with forced audits and fines.

That’s in part because ICE’s priorities have shifted over the past five years toward the identification and deportation of criminals.

The government has deported more than 400,000 individuals in each of the past three years—about half involving those convicted of criminal offenses. “We want to make sure to remove from our communities the most dangerous individuals—those who pose the most imminent threat,” Lines says.

The other half? Lines argues that many of them are criminals, too.

“We will seek to criminally prosecute where we can—but if we don’t have sufficient evidence to bring a criminal case, we will look at using our administrative immigration authority to remove that person,” he says.

Has ICE recognized the fruitlessness of its raid policy? Officials won’t go that far.

But today, Lines says, planning for the humanitarian needs that come in the wake of an enforcement action “is a very significant part of our operation planning. We understand that these worksite- enforcement actions do affect real lives.

“I would hope and think that we can hone and refine our skills,” he says. “I do think we are getting better.”

That may be a rather lukewarm acknowledgment of the Swift raid legacy.

But after five years, it’s something.

Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University.

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