Two people are taken into custody at a Koch Foods Inc. plant in Morton, Miss., on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. U.S. immigration officials raided several Mississippi food processing plants on Wednesday and signaled that the early-morning strikes were part of a large-scale operation targeting owners as well as employees. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Photo: Rogelio V. Solis
Photo: Rogelio V. Solis

Poultry company raided by ICE in Mississippi also operates in Georgia

East Georgia had similar experience in 2006, when 120 were arrested

One of the chicken processing companies targeted by federal immigration authorities in a raid last week in Mississippi also operates plants in Georgia, the biggest poultry producer in the nation.

Koch Foods processes chickens in Cumming, Gainesville and Pine Mountain Valley, according to the Georgia Poultry Federation. The Illinois-based company — which is not affiliated with conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch — also has locations in Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee, employing more than 13,000 people.

A privately held company, Koch Foods did not respond to repeated requests for information about how many people are employed at its Georgia offices, and whether they have been affected by last week’s arrests in Mississippi.

Instead, it issued a prepared statement, saying it has been cooperating with the government since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized employment records and arrested 243 people at its processing facility in Morton, Miss. Wednesday. The company said it participates in E-Verify, a federal employment verification system, but people can fool that system with stolen identification documents.

“For years, Koch Foods also has implemented a strict and thorough employment verification policy of additional comprehensive measures to ensure Koch Foods hires and retains only authorized workers,” the company said. “It has vigilantly followed those measures.”

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said he would not discuss if and when his agency would carry out similar enforcement in Georgia.

“While we cannot speculate to the future, at present it does not encompass any locations in Georgia,” he said.

Federal authorities executed search warrants at seven sites across Mississippi last week, arresting 680 people suspected of being in the country illegally. Of those, 303 were placed in deportation proceedings and released from custody and 377 are still detained at facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi. The arrests, according to ICE, stemmed from a yearlong investigation.

ICE said in court records that the Koch Foods plant in Morton drew the agency’s attention after it tracked unauthorized immigrants to that location, using coordinates from federal electronic monitoring ankle bracelets.

In 2006 in Georgia, federal authorities raided a chicken processing plant in Stillmore and several homes in and around Emanuel County in east Georgia. More than 120 people suspected of being in the country illegally, mostly men, were arrested.

Afterward, many people went into hiding or left town, failing to show up for their jobs at the lumber yards, steel mills and produce companies across the county and in neighboring communities. Many women and children were left behind, some without resources. Small local businesses reported suffering losses.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, fears Georgia could experience something like that again following the events in Mississippi.

“If we were to remove undocumented workers from the picture, our poultry industry would collapse in Georgia,” he said. “Our economy would take a serious hit, and it would be destructive to families all around this state.”

Georgia’s poultry industry — it employs tens of thousands of workers across the state and generates billions of dollars in economic activity — follows state and federal employment laws, said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, a trade association.

“My members are literally doing everything they can with the tools they have at their disposal to ensure they are hiring a legal workforce,” he said.

The National Chicken Council, a nonprofit trade group that represents the broiler chicken industry, sent President Donald Trump a letter Friday, saying “the government does not provide employers with a reliable verification method to prevent identity fraud and document falsification and confirm with confidence that new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States.”

Also on Friday, three Democratic congressmen — including Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi — asked the Trump administration to turn over documents about the costs of the raids, how many people were detained and how many families with children were split up.

The issue has already resonated among several of the Democrats running to represent Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, which encompasses Cumming and rural portions of Forsyth County. Some shared stories on social media of the children whose parents were taken by federal agents during the Mississippi raids. And some, including party activist Nabilah Islam and state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, said what happened in Mississippi underscores the need for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.

“If you like to eat vegetables or any meat, you’re relying on the fact that that food is available because of undocumented labor,” said Lopez Romero, an immigration attorney who has put the issue at the heart of her bid for Congress. The way to “minimize the effects on U.S. citizen children is by making sure we have a pathway to regularizing one’s status (for their parents) so there’s an actual line to get into.”

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, who represents a largely rural southwest Georgia district, said he is concerned because “Georgia produces more poultry than any other state in the nation, and the poultry industry, and most of agriculture, rely heavily on immigrant and guest worker labor. We need a comprehensive immigration bill that will ensure agriculture employers have the legal workers that they need to keep American agriculture the most productive in the world.”

Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.

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