Senators question meat-packer raids


WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration is taking heat from lawmakers for the harm done to a company during last month’s largest-ever immigration raid.

Immigration officials on Dec. 12 arrested 1,297 illegal workers at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Utah.

After a closed-door meeting Monday with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, senators from the affected states said the raid exposed flaws in the federal government and in a program designed to help employers screen for illegal immigrants.

Among the concerns, senators reported, were that agencies can’t share information about stolen identities and that programs designed to catch illegal immigrants allow many lawbreakers to slip through the cracks.

“I can’t think of a system that would be better designed to fail,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.

Chertoff acknowledged some of the problems, and said his department’s programs are not “the perfect cure.” Senators said they wanted Chertoff to enforce the laws, but they needed to assure companies that working with the government would not ultimately hurt them.

Swift participated in a program called Basic Pilot, which screens employees for illegal Social Security numbers. The system doesn’t snag stolen Social Security numbers or numbers that are being used in multiple locations.

Although the government took no action against Swift in the Dec. 12 raids, the Greeley, Colo., meat processor was forced to temporarily halt operations. The raids could cost the company an estimated $30 million.

“We want employers to use Basic Pilot,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. “But we need to have a clear understanding with the business community. I think it’s very unclear now.”

The senators said they planned to introduce legislation to fix some of the problems.

For example, they hope to change the law to allow the Social Security Administration to tell the Homeland Security Department when a Social Security number is being used more than once.

Since the arrests, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has announced the indictments of 148 illegal immigrants, who used other peoples’ Social Security numbers and other personal information to get jobs at Swift. Local prosecutors are bringing state charges against the immigrants, including 80 in Cache County, Utah, and 18 in Weld County, Colo.

AP-ES-01-22-07 1737EST