For The Record

Poultry workers fled Gainesville plants last week amid rumors of ICE raids

By: - August 19, 2019 8:29 am

Workers at the Gold Creek Foods chicken plant in Gainesville fled in response to ICE rumors. Photo by Beau Evans.

Rumors of a roundup by federal immigration authorities at poultry plants in Gainesville late last week sent scores of workers fleeing their jobs and caused a brief panic in an already worried community, according to local Latino advocates.

“Hundreds” of poultry-processing employees rushed from several plant sites where they worked after hearing Thursday morning that a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “raid” might be imminent, said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. The rumor “spread like wildfire” after a manager told workers at one plant that a raid was coming, with some people “running through the woods” to return home, he said.

But the rumor appears to have just that, a rumor. ICE “did not conduct any enforcement actions in the Gainesville area” last Thursday, agency spokeswoman Lindsay Williams said. Gainesville Police Department and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office staff also said neither participated in any federal immigration activities that day.

A plant run by Gold Creek Foods was one of the poultry facilities where workers fled, according to an employee there who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. The company said on Facebook it was “aware of rumors” about local ICE raids and had “no indication these rumors are true.” All of Gold Creek’s employees are cleared to work through the E-verify authorization system, the company said. 

“Our chief concern right now is the well-being of our worker,” the company’s Facebook message said. “Any situation where even one of our employees is afraid to come to work is upsetting.”

The raid scare last week followed the arrests of 680 workers at poultry plants in Mississippi Aug. 7. ICE arrest warrants allege those employees were knowingly hired without legal documentation or work authorization. Nearly half of those employees were later released so they could take care of their children, the federal agency said in a news release.

Georgia, which is the world’s largest processed poultry producer, has drawn attention since the Mississippi arrest. The industry generated nearly $42 billion in revenues last year for the state and helped create around 170,000 total jobs, according to the National Chicken Council. Many of those jobs are held down by Latino workers.

Latino and immigrant labor is critical to the state’s lucrative poultry industry, said Vanesa Sarazua, founder of the Gainesville-based nonprofit Hispanic Alliance GA. News reports of imminent ICE raids, the rumors, plus rampant social-media speculation last Thursday “fed the fear” Latinos in Gainesville were already feeling in the wake of the Mississippi plant arrests, she said.

“I think that as a Latino, the environment we live in is just that way,” Sarazua said. “We’re all living in fear as Latinos in this country. Period.”

Many workers who ran from the plants are legal citizens who are afraid federal immigration authorities might mistakenly arrest them, Sarazua said. Poultry company executives should press for an increase in new work visas and stronger employment verification systems, she said.

All poultry companies in the state use the E-verify system to show proof of employee work authorization, according to Mike Giles, the president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. The National Chicken Federation sent a letter Aug. 12 urging the Trump administration to bolster the E-verify system in ways that would reduce employee identity fraud, he said.

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Beau Evans
Beau Evans

Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.