By OSKAR GARCIA, AP, Sept. 11, 2007
OMAHA, Neb. — The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union wants a federal judge to stop immigration officials from conducting what the union calls illegal workplace raids.
A lawsuit to be filed Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court in Amarillo, Texas, alleges that agents unlawfully detained workers and violated their constitutional rights during raids of six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in December. The lawsuit also demands that the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pay damages to workers.
A copy of the lawsuit was provided to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
ICE officials investigating identity theft arrested 1,297 workers at the plants, but union officials have said more than 12,000 workers were detained against their will during the operation. The plants raided were in Cactus, Texas; Grand Island, Neb.; Greeley, Colo.; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minn.
Union president Joseph Hansen planned to formally announce the lawsuit at a news conference Wednesday in Washington, and to complain that workers who weren't accused of breaking any laws were handcuffed and held for hours and denied access to phones, bathrooms, legal counsel and their families.
"What happened to the Swift workers and the workers in other plants is absolutely an outrage to me. If we don't stand up for workers when this happens, who the hell will?" Hansen said Tuesday. "I just think that this is not only a union obligation, it's absolutely the right thing to do."
According to ICE, 274 of the people arrested during the raids were charged with identity theft or other crimes unrelated to violating immigration laws. Virtually all 274 of those workers were convicted, ICE spokesman Tim Counts said Tuesday.
Of those arrested for being in the country illegally, 649 had been removed from the United States as of March 1, according to the most recent numbers available. Those arrested were from Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Peru.
ICE returned to the plants in July and made 20 more arrests, including a human resources worker and a union representative on charges of recruiting and harboring illegal immigrants.
Eight workers and the union are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but union officials expect at least three times that many to testify against federal agents. In addition to stopping the raids, the lawsuit seeks incidental damages for workers who say their rights were violated, citing the Immigration and Nationality Act and the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
One of the workers at the Greeley plant, Sergio Rodriguez, said he was taken from the plant and detained for about 12 hours at a Denver detention center before federal officials found out he was a legal permanent resident. Greeley is about 60 miles north of Denver.
Rodriguez, 46, said he unsuccessfully asked officials six times to use the telephone. He also said he was handcuffed tightly using temporary plastic handcuffs that left marks on his wrists for more than two weeks after his arrest.
"They did a sloppy job, that's the way I see it," said Rodriguez, who said he immigrated to the United States illegally in 1979 but became a legal permanent resident in 1982.
"How are you supposed to eat the meals that they give us when you're all tied up?" he said. "You can't even move."
The lawsuit names Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Assistant Secretary Julie Myers, both agencies and anonymous federal agents who conducted the Swift raids as defendants.
A Department of Homeland Security official referred questions to ICE. Counts said ICE attorneys had not yet seen the lawsuit, but planned to fight it vigorously.
"From what we've heard from the complaints, they are baseless," Counts said.
Counts said all the workers were given full access to due process under the law and none had his or her rights violated. He said civil search warrants gave the agency the right to fully search the plants and question everyone there.
Counts said workers were allowed to use their own cell phones, company phones and even the phones of federal agents during the operation. He also said that at some of the plants, attorneys tried to get into the plant to talk to workers while the operation was happening.
"We do not allow client shopping by attorneys during a law enforcement action," Counts said. "No law enforcement agency would."
Workers and union representatives from the plants have complained about how ICE handled the raids since they happened in December. But the idea for a lawsuit from the union surfaced publicly last month, when Hansen and other top union officials met with workers and others in Omaha to hear complaints and discuss their options.
Hansen said Tuesday that the Swift raids left workers across the industry looking over their shoulders, worried about having to go through a similar experience.
"They're all saying, 'Jesus, when's it going to happen to us?'" Hansen said. "What happened in Swift spread through the packing industry and the poultry industry overnight without any help. Workers talk to each other."
The Food and Commercial Workers union represents 1.3 million workers in the United States, including 250,000 workers in packing and food processing.
Brazilian firm JBS S.A. acquired Swift from a private equity firm for about $1.5 billion in July. The purchase made the company the world's largest beef processor.
On the Net:
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: http://www.ice.gov
ICE arrest totals from Swift operation: http://tinyurl.com/3x2vrv
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union: http://www.ufcw.org
Swift & Co.: http://www.swiftbrands.com