Federal indictments were unsealed recently against four managers, supervisors, and human resources personnel at Mississippi-based poultry processing plants as a result of an ongoing criminal investigation into company hiring practices and employment of unauthorized workers. To date, the investigation has led to dozens of indictments, criminal arrests, and convictions. Major allegations include individuals falsifying social security information, identity theft, falsifying immigration documents, and falsely claiming to be U.S. citizens—as a means of gaining employment in the United States. The charges here stem from government raids at poultry plants in 2019, which resulted in 680 people being arrested.
At this time, the defendants are charged with harboring illegal aliens, assisting illegal aliens in falsely representing themselves to be U.S. citizens, assisting illegal aliens in obtaining false Social Security cards, falsifying employer quarterly wage reports, aggravated identify theft, wire fraud, and making false statements to law enforcement officials regarding company hiring practices. The charges carry multi-year prison terms and the potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
The ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) worksite enforcement operation involved multiple chicken processing plants in Mississippi, including Peco Foods, Koch Foods, PH Food, and Pearl River Foods. To read the News Release issued by ICE, click here.
Form I-9 Compliance
These charges are part of a long-running investigation by ICE HSI, working with federal prosecutors, to prosecute employers who violate immigration laws. At their core is the issue of employment verification, which is required to ensure that companies do not employ people who are not lawfully authorized to work in the United States.
All employers are legally required to verify the identity and employment authorization of their employees. This includes completing the employment eligibility verification form (the “Form I-9”) within three business days of hire. The law also requires that employers re-verify all employees’ work authorization prior to expiration to ensure the individual remains authorized to work. For example, someone with a temporary work permit must be re-verified prior to the expiration date listed on the card. This would be done on the Form I-9.
Form I-9 compliance is mandatory and compliance failures related to properly completing and maintaining the Form I-9, at least for the duration of an employee’s employment, can lead to technical paperwork violations. In addition, knowingly hiring someone not authorized to work in the United States, or continuing to employ someone after learning they are not authorized to work, can lead to “knowing hire” and “continuing to employ” violations, all of which can result in civil penalties. Furthermore, under the employer sanctions provisions of section 274A of the Immigration and Nationality Act, employers may be charged criminally for “pattern or practice” violations. In addition to civil fines and criminal penalties, employers who violate the employer sanctions provisions may be subject to debarment from government contracts.
Impact of Immigration-Related Investigations
Worksite enforcement operations such as those in Mississippi are extremely disruptive for employers. One investigation can lead to immediate workforce reductions, loss of key employees, brand and reputational damage, legal costs, and legal liability and exposure. A raid (as opposed to a desktop investigation/audit) can also be extremely disruptive of on-going operations as manufacturing sites and plants will be forced to shut down operations for the duration of the raid by government officials.
Notably, as in this case, criminal immigration investigations frequently lead to other charges being filed, including false statements, Social Security fraud, identity theft, tax evasion, and violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The Government Investigations team at Arnall Golden Gregory is experienced in assisting companies in conducting internal audits of their Forms I-9 and other compliance reviews. We also represent individuals and companies under investigation by ICE and other agencies, including if criminal charges are filed. In addition, we can assist in developing a response plan in the event of a raid or government investigation.
Written by Montserrat Miller and Aaron M. Danzig, Partners at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP and members of the Government Investigations team.