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Tyson says Justice letters contradict allegations relating to illegal hires

Tyson Foods Inc. has released two letters from the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) that, Tyson said, “clearly demonstrate” the company was not engaged in a corporate conspiracy to violate United States immigration laws. Tyson said the letters contradict the government’s allegations.
A lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chattanooga said that’s not so.
Tyson has pled not guilty to all charges in federal court.
The case stems from a three-year undercover “sting” operation that, Tyson officials believe, resulted in the employment of approximately 50 undocumented workers delivered by government undercover agents to fewer than five Tyson facilities (not 15 plants as has been widely reported). However, Tyson said, the indictment names only 15 individuals hired at a single plant. Tyson Foods now employs 120,000 people at 130 facilities around the country.
“It’s important to note that the individuals employed as a result of the undercover operation were treated exactly the same as all Tyson team members,” said Ken Kimbro, Tyson’s senior vice president of human resources. “The individuals were paid above minimum wage and provided with full benefits, including health insurance. In addition, each of the plants involved is covered by a collective bargaining agreement.”
Juan Carlos Benitez, special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practices in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chattanooga, said this week: “The Justice Department recently indicted Tyson Foods for conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens for corporate profit. This is unrelated and separate from the Office of Special Counsel’s investigation into allegations of unlawful employment discrimination by Tyson Foods.
“The law is clear that employers must verify the employment eligibility of new hires, but may not discriminate against lawful immigrants and U.S. citizens while doing so. Every day, millions of law-abiding employers throughout the country comply with the provisions of the law.”
Based on letters sent by the Justice Department to Tyson, Tyson is accused of going too far in verifying eligibility of new workers.
The Justice Department letters released by Tyson Foods are dated May 25, 2000, and Jan. 11, 2002. Both letters were sent by the U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division and notify Tyson of government inquiries into allegations that the company too closely scrutinized certain employment verification documents.
The Jan. 11 letter concerns allegations that Tyson was too stringent in its review of employee documentation at the company’s Noel, Mo., plant. The Noel plant, Tyson said, was also part of the undercover operation and is involved in the Chattanooga indictment.
“This is the ultimate Catch-22,” said Kimbro. “The government is trying to have it both ways – they are alleging that Tyson conspired to hire undocumented workers, but at the same time they are accusing the company of scrutinizing workers’ documents too closely.
“These letters clearly demonstrate that there was no ‘corporate conspiracy’ at Tyson Foods,” continued Kimbro. “In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that the vast majority of our plants complied strictly with all laws. The government’s allegations are unfounded, and Tyson Foods will vigorously defend itself against all charges.”
The office of U.S. attorney John MacCoon in Chattanooga said that in 1986, Congress passed a comprehensive, three-pronged immigration law that provided legal status (amnesty) to certain long-term, undocumented workers, required every employer to verify the identity and employment eligibility of each new employee within three days of hiring, and prohibited employment discrimination against work-authorized individuals.
The 1986 act created a new obligation for employers to review documentation provided by each new employee to determine whether the individual was eligible to work in the United States. Employers who do not fulfill their responsibilities to verify employment eligibility are subject to civil penalties and potential criminal prosecution by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the department’s criminal division.
Tyson said it has a long history of partnering with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to ensure corporate compliance with immigration laws and was one of the first and largest participants in the voluntary INS Basic Pilot Program. Basic Pilot enables employers to check the employment eligibility documents of citizens and non-citizens against both Social Security Administration and INS databases. Prior to that time, a number of Tyson Foods facilities adopted Basic Pilot’s predecessor, the Employment Verification Pilot (EVP) Program.
Further evidence that there is no conspiracy, said Tyson spokesperson Ed Nicholson, is demonstrated by the company’s history of voluntarily self-reporting potential immigration violations to the INS.
In December 1998, Tyson Foods suspected that clerical employees in its Ashland, Ala., plant might be participating in a scheme to produce and market fraudulent identification records to enable the employment of undocumented workers. Tyson immediately notified the INS and began working with the government to conduct a full investigation. The company worked with the INS on this matter for six months before concluding that no wrongdoing had occurred.