The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the Smithfield Foods Inc. plant in Tar Heel and residences in four counties on Aug. 22 as part of "Operation Namesake." Fifteen men and 13 women were arrested and sent to regional detention centers.
Investigators said 25 of the detainees assumed the identities of real people in order to falsify citizenship and seek employment. They didn't specify how the immigrants stole the IDs, but they said the case goes beyond instances where workers simply make up fake identities.
"We had U.S. citizen complaints, victims that made their losses known to the government," said Kenneth Smith, who oversees ICE's Office of Investigations in North Carolina. "Typically, what we see are document vendors who will sell both fraudulent documents and documents that belong to other individuals."
The identity-theft victims face various losses, including one person who nearly lost a federal housing subsidy because a suspect's income at Smithfield Foods showed up in the person's IRS records, authorities said.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which has tried to organize the plant for more than a decade, has argued that Smithfield Foods turned in the workers to authorities because of the ongoing labor dispute at the plant. Prosecutors said the unionization effort has nothing to do with their identity theft investigation.
"The investigators nor this office made any inquiry of the status of any of these individuals in regards to their participation in labor organizing activities," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Candelmo said.
ICE agents arrested 21 plant employees in January, and Smithfield Foods also sent letters to 500 to 600 employees whose Social Security numbers, names or other personal information couldn't be verified. The company also fired about 50 workers, saying they provided false information.
About 1,000 workers, most of them Hispanic, then left the plant in protest until Smithfield agreed to rehire the fired workers and letter recipients, who received a grace period to resolve discrepancies in their identity information.
When that time expired, Smithfield officials said about 300 workers quietly left their jobs or quit showing up for work.
The people arrested in last week's raid face a minimum of two years in prison and deportation, if convicted of identity theft. Authorities said some of them have been deported previously.