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How poultry plant raids in Mississippi are affecting industry locally
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A man walks across Monroe Drive at Fieldale Farms in Gainesville Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hiring was already an issue at Fieldale Farms Corp., so the news coming out of Mississippi last week that 300 workers were caught up in poultry plant raids and later released didn’t help the cause.

“Is that racial profiling or what?” said Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms, which operates in Gainesville, Murrayville and Cornelia.

In an industry so heavily dependent on Latino labor, the Aug. 7 arrests of 680 workers at the plants sent shockwaves not only through Mississippi but neighboring states — especially major poultry producing states such as Georgia and Arkansas. Gainesville has long been considered the “poultry capital of the world.”

About 270 were released after being taken to a military hangar where they had been brought, and 30 were released at the plants, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox.

He did not give a reason except to say that those released at the plants were let go due to “humanitarian factors.”

How Georgia might be potentially affected “is a difficult question,” said Frank Singleton, a spokesman for Oakwood-based Wayne Farms.

“It depends on, in many cases, local and state jurisdictions, and industries’ diligence in validating employees.”

The raids have raised the issue of hiring practices, especially the Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify, a web-based system that allows enrolled employers to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S.

According to an Associated Press report, court documents show that six of seven Mississippi chicken processing plants raided Wednesday were “willfully and unlawfully” employing people who lacked authorization to work in the United States, including workers wearing electronic monitoring bracelets at work for previous immigration violations.

Hensley said that “every single person we hire is run through E-Verify.”

“If the government says a person is good to hire, we hire him,” he said. “If they say no, then we don’t. I’m convinced both Koch (Foods) and Peco (Foods) use the same system. That being said, it’s obvious the system is not failproof.”

Koch, which has plants in Hall County, and Peco were two of the companies affected by raids at seven plants.

“An employer like Koch Foods can dutifully and vigilantly comply with the immigration laws and still not know if some of its workers are unauthorized,” according to a statement released by the company. “An employer like Koch Foods can also find itself in jeopardy of committing unlawful discrimination if it acts too aggressively in its effort to comply with the immigration laws.”

Singleton said Wayne Farms, which has about 10,000 employees, also carefully follows federal rules, including E-Verify, in hiring practices.

Mike Giles, president of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation, said he doesn’t believe the raids would have “any effects on hiring practices.”

“Poultry employers in Georgia use every tool at their disposal to make sure that their hiring practices strictly follow state and federal laws,” he said.

“For years, the poultry industry has also supported the idea of improving the E-Verify employee screening tool with the goal of creating a more reliable verification method to prevent identity fraud and document falsification.”

The National Chicken Council recently wrote a letter to President Trump outlining the need for improvements to the E-Verify system, and the Georgia Poultry Federation supports the comments made in the letter, Giles said.

The poultry industry, a major employer in both Hall County and Georgia, sees a statewide demand for labor, and companies stay busy recruiting, hiring and screening employees.

The industry provides for 14,717 full-time positions in Hall County and 170,595 positions in Georgia, according to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. The estimated total wages for those employees in Hall is $780 million.

“There’s just simply not enough workers for the job opportunities that are there,” Giles said.

And Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said the area’s poultry industry isn’t just about processing anymore.

It “has evolved … to become a center for equipment manufacturing, automation, packaging, optical technologies, cold-chain logistics and preventative health,” he said.

The Associated Press and reporter Megan Reed contributed to this report.

Information about immigrants released in the Mississippi raids has been corrected from the original version of this article.