FOREST, Mississippi — Koch Foods, one of the chicken processing companies targeted as part of a massive immigration raid in Mississippi that swept up hundreds of immigrants last week, is looking to replace the workers it lost.
The Illinois-based company had a job fair in Forest, Mississippi on Monday — in the same town where many of the immigrants swept up in the raids live.
The mass raids — thought to be the largest in American history — resulted in the arrests of approximately 680 workers across seven plants — including a Koch facility in nearby Morton. Of those, some 300 have been released, but since they’re undocumented, they’re no longer able to work, meaning companies like Koch have to find new people to fill their shoes, something experts have said could be difficult for a company that relies so heavily on immigrant labor.
The fair was held at the WIN Job Center in Forest, which is operated by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, a state agency that helps people find jobs and file unemployment claims. Dianne Bell, a spokesperson for the MDES, told reporters the agency has had job fairs for Koch and other chicken processing companies in the past.
Bell said Koch first contacted the MDES about the fair last Wednesday, just one day after the raids. ”We treat Koch Foods just as we do any other business that comes to us,” she said, adding that the job fair was “not unusual.”
Bell said more than 200 people filled out applications during the job fair, which ran from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Several applicants told VICE News they heard about the job fair on social media and wanted to work at Koch because they had worked there in the past and had been relatively well-paid. Many said they’d heard about the ICE raids and some said they had friends and acquaintances who’d been swept up.
Tish Lewis, a 31-year-old who worked at the Koch plant in Morton for two years and was interested in working there again, told VICE News she knew several people who were arrested as part of the raids and subsequently released.
“Two of my friends came back, as far as I know, but I haven’t heard anything else,” she said. “It’s sad. They’ve got families. They need jobs.”
All applicants were required to bring two forms of identification — ideally a driver’s license and a Social Security card — to prove they’re legally able to live and work in the U.S.
Bell, the MDES spokesperson, said the applicants were vetted by the state, and only those who met the identification requirements would have their applications forwarded to the company. Any applicants who failed to bring two forms of ID would be turned away, she said.
It’s unclear how many positions Koch was looking to fill. Koch has not disclosed how many of its employees were arrested last week and the company did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
“Due to the abrupt detainment of Koch Foods employees by ICE agents at the Morton facility prior to the first shift on August 7, and the simultaneous seizure of the company’s employment records, the company has been unable to determine how many employees were affected,” Koch spokesperson Jim Gilliland said in a statement on the company’s website.
The company also said it may have inadvertently hired immigrants who used false Social Security numbers or driver’s licenses to get through the E-Verify system. “For example, a worker could steal the identity of a person who is authorized to work in the United States and then present to Koch Foods identity and work authorization documents that appear authentic,” the statement read. “Federal immigration and discrimination law require Koch Foods to accept documents that appear authentic.”
A Koch spokesperson said the plant has turned away more than 400 applicants since 2016 because they couldn’t prove they were legally able to work in the U.S. But recently unsealed court records revealing the investigation leading up to last week’s raids show how undocumented workers ended up in the plants anyway.
The search warrants and other records, which claim Koch and other companies “willfully” hired undocumented workers, were unsealed last Thursday when federal judge Linda Anderson of the southern district of Mississippi approved a motion to open them. They show how Koch and other companies hired undocumented immigrants — some of whom worked at the plant after being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — for years.
In June 2018, for example, a Guatemalan woman was detained by immigration authorities before eventually being released with an ankle monitor. The monitor showed that she worked at the Koch plant in Morton for 8 to 10 hours a day a few times a week. Other immigrants tracked by ICE ankle bracelets also worked at chicken plants in the area, according to the unsealed records.
Court records also show that some plant workers purchased fraudulent Social Security numbers and identity documents to work in the plants.
Although the applicants who spoke to VICE News said they were hoping to be hired by Koch, some worried that the plant’s sudden loss of immigrant labor would seriously affect day-to-day operations.
James Harper, a 21 -year-old applicant who previously worked at a different Koch plant, said the plant’s immigrant employees were among the hardest working.
“To be honest, the plant can’t move without them,” he said.
Cover: The Koch Foods processing plant in Forest, Mississippi is now hiring. Koch, an Illinois-based chicken company, had a job fair for its plant in Morton after it was hit by an immigration raid. (Photo: Juanita Ceballos/VICE News)