GREELEY, Colo. (AP) _ Federal agents raided meat processing plants in six states Tuesday and arrested an unknown number of suspected illegal immigrants in an identity theft investigation, temporarily suspending operations at all six plants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the workers were being arrested on administrative immigration violations and, in some cases, criminal arrest warrants stemming from a nearly yearlong investigation.
ICE chief Julie L. Myers told reporters in Washington that agents had uncovered a scheme in which illegal immigrants and others had stolen or bought the identities and Social Security numbers of possibly hundreds of U.S. citizens and lawful residents to get jobs with Greeley-based meat processor Swift & Co.
Six Swift processing facilities were raided Tuesday, in Greeley; Grand Island, Neb.; Cactus, Texas; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minn., representing all of Swift's domestic beef processing capacity and 77 percent of its pork processing capacity.
No charges had been filed against the company.
``Swift has never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor have we ever knowingly hired such individuals,'' Swift & Co. President and CEO Sam Rovit said in a statement.
Since 1997, Swift has been using a government pilot program to confirms whether Social Security numbers are valid. Company officials have previously said one shortcoming may be the program's inability to detect when two people are using the same number.
Hundreds of workers' family members gathered outside the plants, with some trying to deliver documentation to relatives inside. In Greeley, cars lined the street leading to the plant.
One sheriff's deputy described the scene outside the Utah plant as a circus.
``They've got three buses, a bunch of transport vans, a lot of cars and 150 or so agents,'' chief Cache County deputy David Bennett said.
Bennett said ICE officials didn't notify the sheriff's department about the raid. ``They didn't ask for our help,'' he said. ``We were lucky to find out.''
At Grand Island, Police Chief Steve Lamken said he refused to let his officers take part in the raid.
``When this is all over, we're still here taking care of our community and if I have a significant part of my population that's fearful and won't call us then that's not good for our community,'' he said.
Swift & Co. describes itself as an $8 billion business and the world's second-largest meat processing company. The Hyrum plant can process up to 2,200 cattle a day, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Hyrum city Administrator Brent Jensen says that plant employs more than 1,000 people.
In Washington, Myers said ICE had uncovered several different rings that may have provided illegal documents to the workers. Some immigrants had genuine U.S. birth certificates, Myers said.
ICE officials at the plants in Greeley and Worthington said the total number of arrests might not be released until Wednesday.