FORT WORTH, Texas — Reports that the country's largest chicken processing company has begun firing undocumented workers in East Texas have business leaders and immigration experts bracing for a nationwide crackdown on employers who hire illegal aliens.
Pilgrim's Pride, a Fortune 500 company that processes 44 million birds a week, confirmed Tuesday that it has recently terminated employees at its plants in Lufkin and Nacogdoches, but officials won't give numbers or reasons. Advocates for the workers estimate the company has already fired more than 100 people who can't produce valid Social Security numbers.
"Large layoffs is what I'm hearing," said Linda Morales, a Stephen F. Austin State University professor in Nacogdoches who assists migrant families. "It wasn't Pilgrim's that decided to do this. I think it was some kind of warning they got ... about hiring people who don't have documentation."
Experts say the firings underscore widespread concerns that federal authorities, often criticized for failing to punish employers who hire illegals, are about to embark on a major worksite crackdown.
"Tip of the iceberg doesn't even get it," said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute in Washington, a conservative think tank. "It's like if a plague were coming and (Pilgrim's) is the first person coughing. This is going to be really bad."
She said millions of workers nationwide could be impacted if the beefed up federal enforcement is carried out as some anticipate.
A major impetus for new fears: the expectation that Department of Homeland Security will soon finalize a regulation that puts more teeth in the employer sanction law - which can lead to fines of up to $10,000 per employee, against companies that knowingly hire illegal aliens. The rule as currently designed would basically change the definition of "knowingly" and would put much more of the onus on employers to rectify discrepancies that arise over Social Security numbers, experts say.
Issued last year, the proposed regulation was left pending while Congress attempted to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package, which was controversial in part because it included limited amnesty for many workers already here.
Since the effort collapsed, business leaders have been expecting the long-pending rule to come out "any day," said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. Hammond, a friend of Pilgrim's founder Bo Pilgrim, stressed that he can't speak for the company. But Hammond said he believes the firings are "in anticipation of this rule."
"There are a lot of employees in Texas, some say 1.2 million to 1.5 million, who are undocumented workers," Hammond said. "A lot of them could be out of the workforce over the next six to 12 months."
Pat Reilly, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, confirmed that the rule, known as ICEB-2006-0004, was awaiting final action. She had no timetable for its final adoption and publication in the Federal Register.
"This one is a well-intentioned regulation and one hopes that it will get full consideration," Reilly said.
Gary Rhodes, a spokesman for Pilgrim's Pride, would not say whether the threat of new regulations prompted the recent firings, describing the issue as an internal personnel matter.
"We have been terminating a number of employees at some of our facilities in Texas. We can't go into any details," Rhodes said. "There undoubtedly will be additional terminations." Rhodes said "layoffs" is an inaccurate description of the job terminations because the company is simultaneously hiring people. He said hundreds of applications have been coming in and noted the company has raised hourly pay for some jobs in order to remain competitive.
A receptionist at a law firm in Nacogdoches said she is married to an undocumented immigrant who works at Pilgrim's. She said her husband's manager recently told him he would be terminated if he did not give the company a valid Social Security number.
"It's almost over for him," said the receptionist, who wanted only her first name, Veronica, to be used. "It's not just him, it's probably even half of Pilgrim's Pride ... They're just waiting to get tapped on the shoulder."
Morales, the university professor in Nacogdoches, said her 300-member Centro Cristiano Familiar church has seen a huge impact from the firings already. She estimated that over 100 adults, many of them longtime residents with deep ties to East Texas, had lost jobs.
"We're going to be having to find some resources for these families that are being laid off," said Morales, a Sunday school teacher at the church. "We have a lot of folks in our congregation that depend on Pilgrims for their livelihood."
Cracking down on employers
A new federal rule could give authorities more power to punish employers who ignore warnings about discrepancies and possible misuse of Social Security numbers.
Companies that knowingly hire illegal aliens can be subject to fines of up to $10,000 per worker for repeat offenses.
Experts say companies currently face little sanction for ignoring federal "no-match" letters indicating something is amiss with a worker's Social Security number.