ICE arrests more than 100 workers in raid on Massillon meat supplier

MASSILLON, Ohio - Federal immigration officials on Tuesday raided a large meat supplier based in Massillon, Ohio, and arrested more than 100 workers suspected of using stolen or fraudulent identification to gain employment.

As many as 100 agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, US Customs and Border Protection and the US Border Patrol descended upon four facilities operated by Fresh Mark during the late afternoon raid.

The raid -- which was conducted with no prior notice to the business -- was the largest workplace enforcement action to take place under the Trump Administration, said Steve Francis, special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations unit, which oversees Michigan and Ohio.

Officials arrived with criminal and federal search warrants to collect documents on more than 200 employees. The warrants were served at Fresh Mark's facilities in Salem, Massillon and Canton, Ohio.

ICE officials said the number of workers arrested was likely to climb once the operation concluded. Officials said some arrested workers could face federal charges for identity theft and/or reentry after deportation.

All of the workers who were arrested during Tuesday's raid worked at the company's Salem meat processing facility, said Francis. Most of the workers involved are from Guatemala, he said.

The company's web site indicates it employs more than 1,000 employees.

Francis said the raid was the result of more than a year-long investigation into Fresh Mark and its employees, and whether the company knowingly hired and harbored undocumented workers. He declined to offer further details.

Shortly after the raid began, Fresh Mark confirmed that representatives from the Department of Homeland Security were at its Massillon, Canton and Salem facilities. "We will have more information as it becomes available," spokesperson Brittany Julian said in a statement.

The family-owned company sells meat products, such as bacon, deli ham, lunch meats and sausages under the brands Sugardale, Sugardale Food Service and Superior's Brand Meats to restaurants, delis, grocers and stadiums nationwide.

Francis said some of the workers who were arrested would be taken to detention centers in Michigan and Ohio, while others may be deported immediately. ICE said those who are detained will await removal proceedings. Other workers could potentially be released on humanitarian grounds, say if they are a parent of a young child who doesn't have immediate backup care in place, said Francis. In those cases, they would be given a notice to appear at an immigration court.

Fresh Mark released the following statement on Tuesday night:

We can confirm representatives from Homeland Security Investigations were onsite in our Massillon, Canton and Salem facilities this afternoon.

Because of the law enforcement nature of today’s events, all inquiries should be directed to Homeland Security.

Fresh Mark was the first company in Ohio to partner with Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) in the voluntary IMAGE program (ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers).

This program between the US Government and private employers ensures a lawful workforce.

To qualify for IMAGE certification, companies must perform the following requirements:

Participate in the Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify program
Establish a written hiring and employment eligibility verification policy that includes internal Form I-9 audits at least once a year
Submit to a Form I-9 inspection

Work site raids have escalated dramatically under the Trump administration.

In October 2017, ICE's acting director Tom Homan said he had ordered the agency's investigative unit to increase enforcement actions at businesses by as much as fivefold.

"We're not just talking about arresting the aliens at these work sites, we are also talking about employers who knowingly hire people who are unauthorized to work," Homan said at a press conference in Washington D.C., in December.

So far this year, ICE has arrested more than 600 workers that it alleges were working without proper authorization. That number far exceeds the 172 arrests made in 2017, according to ICE.

Up until Tuesday's raid, the largest raid -- in terms of arrests this year -- happened earlier this month when immigration authorities arrested 114 undocumented immigrants working at an Ohio gardening business.

ICE regularly conducts I-9 audits, which seek to verify whether workers provided proper proof of identification -- such as a driver's license or a Social Security card -- when they were hired. Employers must keep these I-9 forms after they have hired a worker and for a period of time after the employee has left the company.

From October 2017 to May 2018, the agency has carried out 2,282 audits -- almost double the 1,360 audits it conducted the prior year. As a result of these audits and other investigations, the Department of Homeland Security has more than doubled the number of business investigations it has conducted this year.

"It's important that companies know not to willingly participate in the hiring of illegal aliens," said Francis.

Civil penalties for businesses that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants can range from $548 to $21,916 per violation. Repeat offenders and companies hiring a larger number of unauthorized workers receive fines that are on the higher end of the range. Criminal penalties for employing undocumented workers can result in hefty fines and possibly jail time.

ICE's worksite enforcement actions resulted in $97.6 million in fines and forfeitures last year, up from $2 million in 2016. According to ICE, the spike was almost entirely the result of penalties incurred by Asplundh Tree Expert Co., which was fined a total of $95 million. ICE said it was the largest payment ever levied in a work site case.

The agency does not yet have a tally for financial penalties levied this year.

A 24-hour toll-free detainee locator hotline is available for family members of those arrested in today’s operation to field questions about detention status and the removal process. The hotline operates in English and Spanish; the phone number is 1-888-351-4024.