COLUMBIA, S.C – The company that runs a South Carolina poultry plant knew its managers were hiring illegal immigrants at a facility raided in October, federal prosecutors said in an indictment released Thursday.
U.S. Attorney Walt Wilkins added Columbia Farms Inc. to an indictment that already charges plant manager Barry Cronic and personnel manager Elaine Crump of illegally hiring workers at a processing plant in Greenville.
In the indictment, handed down by a federal grand jury earlier this week, Columbia Farms Inc., is named in nearly 30 charges. Through Crump and Cronic, the company knowingly continued to employ 29 illegal immigrants, the first of whom was hired in November 2001, prosecutors said.
The managers had been accused of telling employees to use falsified documents and could face both fines and prison time if convicted. Columbia Farms itself could face additional fines.
North Carolina-based House of Raeford, which owns the plant, said Thursday it doesn't knowingly hire illegal immigrants and is cooperating with investigators. The parent company has not been charged.
"For nearly a year Columbia Farms Inc. has cooperated and will continue to cooperate with the Federal government in every step of their investigation," Dave Witter said in a statement. "Columbia Farms contends that it has followed all state and federal employment laws and looks forward to vindicating the Company's position in a court of law."
An attorney for Columbia Farms did not immediately return a message.
The investigation into the company first broke in June 2008, when federal agents arrested five plant supervisors after finding what appeared to be false information on employment records. A month later, personnel manager Elaine Crump was arrested and charged with telling employees to use falsified immigration documents.
The situation intensified several months later, when scores of federal agents descended on the plant in October and detained more than 300 suspected illegal immigrants. Witnesses said employees screamed and scrambled to get away, but agents blocked the entrances.
That raid came close on the heels of others across the country. In August 2008, more than 600 suspected illegal immigrants were detained at a Mississippi transformer plant in the largest single-workplace immigration raid in U.S. history.
And several months before, federal immigration officials swept into Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, in Iowa, detaining nearly 400 workers and seizing dozens of fraudulent permanent resident alien cards.
In the aftermath of the South Carolina raid, prosecutors said a review of immigration paperwork for 825 employees showed more than 775 contained false information. Most of the illegal workers swept up in the raid were quickly deported, but others pleaded guilty and are serving time in prison for criminal charges like using illegal documents and false Social Security numbers or re-entering the country illegally.
The following April, Cronic, the plant's manager, was indicted with knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. Prosecutors said Cronic began hiring illegal immigrants at Columbia Farms in 2000 and kept hiring them until the October raid.
Crump, Cronic and the company itself are scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Greenville later this month.