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Federal immigration agents raided meat processing plants in six states yesterday. They detained an unknown number of workers who are suspected of being in the country illegally. This raid was about more than illegal immigration. Agents say many of the workers stole the identities of legal residents to get jobs.

From Denver, NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Just after the day shift began, about 1,000 immigration agents and officers surrounded six Swift meat packing plants in Utah, Colorado, Texas, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.

In Greeley, Colorado agents kept workers in the cafeteria and singled out those suspected of being in the country illegally. That's when Mercinda Arenas(ph) received a call from her husband. He said he was being detained. Within just a few hours, similar calls went out in the crowd of more than 100 family members began to form in front of the plant. Arenas was there with her three-month old son and her mother.

Ms. MERCINDA ARENAS (Wife of deportee): My baby hasn't said goodbye to his dad because of them. He didn't do nothing.

Unidentified Woman (Mercinda's Mother): Now, he will suffer.

Ms. ARENAS: What is he going to do now? He can't send money. What are we supposed to do now to live, seriously?

BRADY: Arenas says there are a lot of illegal immigrants working at the plant. And she predicts any workers who are deported will sneak back across the border and return to their jobs in no time. However, federal officials also plan to charge some of the workers with crimes, so they could end up in jail.

Mr. MARC RAIMONDI (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): In the course of doing this worksite investigation, we came across an alarming number of cases of identity theft.

BRADY: Marc Raimondi is with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. He says the raids were the result of a 10-month investigation. According to ICE, some of the workers stole or bought the identities they needed to get a job. Some of them even had real birth certificates.

Raimondi says it's likely some of the potentially hundreds of victims are not even aware their identification was stolen.

Mr. RAIMONDI: What we're finding is, there's a lot of illicit activity surrounding illegal immigration. There is document fraud, there's benefit fraud, there's identity theft. You know, there's a host of crime associated with the matter.

BRADY: Swift has not been charged with any crimes, but the raids forced the company to shut down all its beef and most of its pork processing plants. Some in the meat industry are worried the raids will prompt illegal workers at other plants around the country to skip work in coming days, for fear agents will show up at their job sites, too.

The Greeley workers are represented by a union - United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7. UFCW spokesman, Dave Minshall, says the union has requested a court injunction to stop any further raids.

Minshall says the country needs to reform its immigration laws. The UFCW has called for increasing the number of workers allowed into the country and setting up a system so they can become citizens.

Mr. DAVE MINSHALL (Spokesman, UFCW): We have an immigration system, or a non-immigration system, in this country and it just isn't working. If we had an immigration system that worked, things like this wouldn't be happening.

BRADY: In a written statement, Swift & Company also called for immigration reform, though its focus is on what the company sees as conflicting federal policies. On one hand, companies are required to show their workers are legal. But if companies press too hard for information, they can be sued for discrimination. That happened to Swift in 2001.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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