In a letter dated a day after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided seven Mississippi chicken processing plants and arrested 680 people last week, the National Chicken Council told President Trump and congressional leaders that processors need better methods to verify who is legally authorized to work in the U.S.
NCC President Mike Brown said while the industry "uses every tool available" to verify the identity and legal immigration status of job applicants, loopholes allow prospective workers to submit documents that are easily falsified. Several people can earn wages using the same Social Security number, he added, or even use the number of a deceased person. The federal government's E-Verify program doesn't flag such problems, Brown said, and the Social Security Administration "provides little cooperation or resources to employers trying to combat identity fraud."
The NCC suggested companies be allowed to require an E-Verify Self Check before hiring someone, which is not legally permitted now. Eligible employees should then be allowed to appeal the results or address related issues with the appropriate federal agencies in a timely fashion.
After the ICE raids last week, it's not surprising the chicken processing industry wants to tighten up the existing system for verifying applicants' identities and whether they're legally allowed to work in the U.S. Employers have the responsibility of making sure regulations are followed when screening and hiring workers, so the industry wants to avoid potential liability — and possible worker shortages —if unauthorized employees are found in plants.
Currently, the federal government allows job applicants to submit documents from three categories before they're considered eligible for employment. List A proves identity and employment authorization and includes passports and permanent residency cards. List B includes identity-related documents, such as driver's licenses or voter registration cards. List C includes employment authorization documents, such as Social Security cards or birth certificates. Applicants can submit one document from List A or one from both List B and List C.
The NCC noted many prospective workers choose to submit documents from Lists B and C, which are the easiest to falsify. When receiving such documents, the trade association said employers should be allowed to require E-Verify Self Check before hiring. E-Verify Self Check is an online service using data from public records and requiring applicants to be tested on it, but the NCC said its use currently cannot be required before or after hiring someone.
The NCC also told Trump it was concerned about how future federal immigration enforcement actions might impact poultry producers. Should the suggested methods be followed and problems still arise, the group suggested a "safe harbor" be provided so employers are insulated from liability unless the government can prove they acted in bad faith.
"As a businessman yourself, you understand the difficulty in securing a legal workforce and the disruptions to commerce that arise when the tools provided are inadequate," the letter stated.
How disruptive the Mississippi ICE raids have been to the chicken industry as a whole remains to be seen, but there's no question they were devastating to hundreds of employees. About 300 of the 680 workers arrested were temporarily released the same day with notices to appear before immigration judges at a later time, an ICE spokesman told the BBC.
According to National Public Radio, two of the companies whose facilities were raided last week — Koch Foods and Peco Foods — had apparently not suffered any serious operational issues. Koch said in a statement its plant in Morton, Mississippi, which employs more than 1,000 people, didn't operate during the morning shift the day after the raid but would keep operating all shifts to minimize impact.
If this kind of raid keeps happening, it could mean additional costs for poultry companies. They may have to find other workers on short notice, and the added operational costs could show up as higher prices at the grocery store.
Spanish-speaking immigrants comprise a significant chunk of employees in some chicken and other food processing facilities, as well as in farm work. According to 2017 U.S. Department of Labor data cited by Forbes, 57% of the U.S. agricultural workforce is undocumented. Since U.S. unemployment remains relatively low, food businesses looking to fill processing positions are having a tough time, even when they only hire documented workers. Their options seem to be raising pay levels or adopting more automated technology — or perhaps some of both.
Meat processors and fresh produce producers are looking into using robots to cut costs and relieve cyclical labor shortages. Tyson Foods is trying to create robots at a new automation center in Arkansas to do physically demanding, highly repetitive or dangerous jobs. The company said it has invested more than $215 million in automation and robotics in the past five years.
It's possible the recent immigration raids will hurry up adoption of such technology so manufacturers won't need to worry as much about ICE raids. However, some work will still need to be done by humans, so robots aren't the entire answer to this complex issue. Just as the Trump administration has changed the federal government's stance on undocumented workers, the business community may need to change its practices, too.