GREENVILLE, S.C. — The government's long-simmering case against Columbia Farms could play out in a federal courtroom starting today. Barring a last-minute plea deal, the poultry company and two of its top managers will go to trial on charges they knowingly employed illegal immigrants.
The government will probably build its criminal case largely on the testimony of former company human resources officials and documents submitted by illegal immigrants when they were hired, court filings suggest.
The company — a subsidiary of N.C.-based House of Raeford Farms — is expected to argue that it followed all federal laws. Those laws prohibit employers from scrutinizing employee documentation too closely — and from rejecting documents that "reasonably appear to be genuine," the company has said in court motions.
"Employers such as Columbia Farms are left with a Hobson's choice: do nothing and risk immigration charges or take action against possible unauthorized workers and face discrimination charges," defense lawyers wrote in a recent motion.
The two sides were in talks Monday night, but it was unclear whether a deal would be reached.
"The vast, vast majority of federal criminal cases are resolved with a plea agreement, because federal law enforcement, such as the FBI, generally have rock-solid cases before an arrest is even made," Jeremy McKinney, an immigration lawyer from Greensboro, wrote in an e-mail to the Observer.
Still, McKinney said, the government faces a challenging task: proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants knew that workers were in the country illegally.
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