Dodge City — Frightened by raids last year at six Swift & Co. plants, illegal immigrants in the nation's meatpacking towns are preparing for their possible arrest.
For years, immigrant rights groups had been confident the meatpacking giants were so powerful that immigration agents would never raid them.
But since the Dec. 12 sweeps at Swift plants in six states, immigrant advocacy groups have been putting on workshops, teaching undocumented workers how to prepare for their arrests by doing such things as drawing up legal documents so someone could care for their children and handle their financial affairs.
In addition, the United Food and Commercial Workers union has printed a bilingual immigration rights kit it plans to distribute nationwide to workers in the coming weeks. The kit includes practical information, legal documents and sample letters.
"We want to make sure they (immigration officials) don't take advantage of our people," said Martin Rosas, secretary-treasurer for UFCW in Dodge City.
Family lives in fear
Among those making preparations since attending a workshop is the family of a 43-year-old man who works under a false identity at the National Beef plant in Liberal. Two of his four children, ranging in age from 4 to 18, were born in the United States, where he has lived on and off for 21 years.
His wife, a 39-year-old illegal immigrant, asked not to be identified for fear the family would be arrested. The family is writing documents so her brother, a legal resident, would have custody of the children if the parents are deported. They have put their few possessions in another person's name and are trying to save what little money they can.
"It is the expected response of people that are terrified, that have to keep working in order to live," said James Austin, a Kansas City, Mo., immigration lawyer who has taught at such workshops in Kansas.
Ed Hayes, Kansas director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group opposed to illegal immigration, said he was dismayed by those who are helping illegal immigrants.
"Those people ought to be arrested because they are helping people break the law," Hayes said. "We have churches that are aiding and abetting people breaking the law. We have chambers of commerce who want them to do it, politicians who want them to do it. What happened to our nation of laws?"
Immigration informational meetings are not new, Austin said, but only recently have organizers begun distributing and discussing power of attorney documents at them. He said that's a direct response by Hispanic advocacy agencies to recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, including last year's arrests of 1,282 Swift workers at plants in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Iowa and Minnesota.
"I don't know what else to do, other than have people prepare as much as they can in case that happens here," said the Rev. John Fahey of St. Anthony Catholic Church in the southwestern Kansas town of Liberal, where a recent workshop drew 250 workers from meatpacking plants in southwest Kansas.
The Hispanic advocacy group Hispanos Unidos of Liberal and United Methodist Mexican American Ministries helped organize the meeting, said Arturo Ponce, a former meatpacking plant worker who helped found Hispanos Unidos of Liberal.
Employers face charges
Immigrant families also are being urged to set up savings accounts with $3,000 to $10,000 per family to pay bail bonds and other costs.
Other legal advice included warnings not to sign a voluntary deportation form and to demand an immigration attorney, Ponce said.
Rosas said UFCW's bilingual kit will explain workers' rights and offer practical advice for dealing with immigration problems. Among the documents in the kit are sample letters immigrants can use to better respond to the federal government's inquiries about problems with Social Security numbers.
"There is always the same fear now - everywhere you go," Rosas said.
The extent of family preparations by undocumented workers surprised officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as the meatpacking industry's trade group, the American Meat Institute. Both groups told The Associated Press they were unaware of them.
"I haven't heard of any companies actively trying to prepare workers because if a company knows they are undocumented, they are not supposed to be hiring them anyway," Austin said.
Employers can face charges if they knowingly hire illegal workers.
Companies verifying IDs
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson noted that about half of immigration-related cases in Kansas - which has massive slaughterhouses in Dodge City, Liberal, Garden City and Emporia - are associated with the food-processing industry. Anderson said the "hot area now" in the state for identity theft is in Cowley County, where Creekstone Farms Premium Beef opened a plant in 2003.
He said illegal immigrants sometimes steal identities to get past the government's "Basic Pilot" program, which screens Social Security numbers to make sure they're real and that they match up with the person's name.
Don Stull, a Kansas University anthropology professor and industry expert, said it's estimated about 25 percent of people working at the nation's meatpacking plants are in the country illegally. In the Swift raids, about 10 percent of the company's work force was arrested.
The industry says it is doing everything it can to make sure it does not hire illegal immigrants.
"Hiring illegal workers just doesn't make good business sense. Employee turnover is very disruptive," said Dave Ray, spokesman for the American Meat Institute.
Ray noted the meatpacking industry was a pioneer in the early use of Basic Pilot, which he called a valuable, but not foolproof, tool.
At the National Beef plant in Dodge City, general manager Carey Hoskinson said if he could convey any message to his employees, it would be to not worry about a raid.
He noted that his company uses government identity-verification programs as well as its own internal personnel audits.
"I don't think ICE has its cross hairs on us," he said.