WASHINGTON — Federal officials raided six meatpacking plants across the country Tuesday in the culmination of a 10-month investigation triggered by allegations that illegal immigrants were using the stolen identities of U.S. citizens.
The raids, all at plants operated by Swift & Co., resulted in arrests of workers on immigration violations and some existing criminal warrants, with charges of aggravated identity theft possible at a later date, officials said. The number of arrests was not immediately known. The company was not charged.
The action targeted the use of legitimate Social Security numbers by illegal immigrants -- what Jamie Zuieback, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called "a massive identity-theft scheme."
"We believe hundreds of U.S. citizens were affected," she said. "We do see this as a new trend, and the scope of it is very large, and that makes it significant."
In the past, she said, illegal workers had used "false identities, which is different from using stolen identities."
ICE officials did not say whether immigrants had stolen the identities themselves or whether they had purchased them from third parties.
The Bush administration has pushed businesses to use an online verification system that determines the validity of Social Security numbers provided by workers. Business groups were quick to criticize the raids, saying they underscored fundamental weaknesses in the system, known as Basic Pilot, which Swift has used since 1997.
"This shows their Basic Pilot system does not work," said Angelo Amador, immigration policy director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Right now it does nothing to protect against identity theft."
Immigrant advocates questioned the efficacy of work-site enforcement efforts that focused on workers, not employers.
"It suggests they think they can deal with our immigration problem by going after immigrants one at a time," said Cecilia Munoz, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza. "It's alarming."
Swift's chief executive, Sam Rovit, said in a statement that the company had checked every employee with Basic Pilot.
"Swift has ... relied in good faith on a program explicitly held out by the president of the United States as an effective tool to help employers comply with applicable immigration laws," he said. "Swift has never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor have we ever knowingly hired such individuals."
In June, a Swift executive told a House small-business subcommittee about weaknesses in the program, noting that it could identify false numbers but was unable to detect multiple uses of the same genuine number.
"The same Social Security number could be in use at another employer, and potentially multiple employers across the country," said Jack Shandley, the company's senior vice president for human resources.
The issue of identity theft by illegal immigrants came up in this summer's congressional debate on immigration, with senators taking to the floor to describe stay-at-home mothers who received hefty tax bills because of jobs in other states held by illegal immigrants using the women's Social Security numbers.
Swift, a privately owned company based in Greeley, Colo., is the country's third-largest processor of beef and pork, with annual sales close to $10 billion and 15,000 workers in nine plants across eight states.
Tuesday's raids targeted plants in Greeley; Grand Island, Neb.; Cactus, Texas; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minn.
Work at the six plants, which include all of Swift's beef-processing facilities and 77% of its pork-processing facilities, was temporarily suspended. Swift said its ability to resume operations would depend on the number of employees able to return to work.
The meatpacking industry has been the focus of work-site enforcement efforts in the past, but with mixed success. In 1998 and 1999, immigration officials conducted large-scale checks on Nebraska's meatpacking industry.
Those raids, known as Operation Vanguard, led to complaints from the state's governor and congressmen that the action was hurting local farmers and driving down prices. Immigration officials eventually shifted their efforts to other states.
One analyst suggested that the emphasis on identity theft in the Swift raids might be an effort to protect enforcement agencies from similar political pressure.
"Incidents like Operation Vanguard breed real caution in the field," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based public policy center that advocates strict limits on immigration. "It's less likely that politicians will respond to complaints from businessmen or politicians ... if the grounds for action was identity theft that targets U.S. citizens."