RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Attorneys meet next week with a judge in Tennessee to set a trial date for a class-action lawsuit against the world's largest meat producer. Tyson Foods is accused of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

From member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, Tanya Ott reports.

TONYA OTT: On a recent morning just after shift change at the Tyson Chicken Processing Plant in Gadsden, Alabama, employees move stacks of palettes.

(Soundbite of heavy machinery)

OTT: All in a day's work, but attorney Howard Foster says there's nothing routine about how Tyson does business. Foster represents Tyson employees who say they're underpaid because the company hires illegal immigrants who will work for less.

Mr. HOWARD FOSTER (Attorney): This has been successful in lowering the wages by something like 10 to 30 percent.

OTT: Tyson denies it knowingly employs illegal immigrants, but company attorney Mark Hopson says with a workforce of nearly 100,000 hourly employees, it's impossible to guarantee it.

Mr. MARK HOPSON (Attorney): There are 50,000, 60,000, even 70,000 people applying for jobs in a given year for Tyson Foods. That's a lot of H.R. work to do and that's a lot of people to process through a system which itself is imperfect.

OTT: Federal law requires employers to ask for a drivers license and Social Security number, which is cross-referenced against the government's database. But Hopson says all that guarantees is that fraudulent IDs are pretty good fakes. It's a defense that's worked in similar lawsuits, says Lilia Velasquez, an immigration specialist from California Western School of Law.

Ms. LILIA VELASQUEZ (California Western School of Law): The manager will come in and say, look, that the documents turn out to be fraudulent is not our problem. We're not forensic scientists; we're not immigration inspectors; we don't know the difference.

OTT: But Howard Foster, who is suing Tyson, doesn't buy it.

Mr. FOSTER: They know that they are not good papers, because the people that they're employing who are illegal are claiming to be U.S. citizens, and yet at the same time they're not speaking English, they don't have housing, they are new to the communities.

OTT: In 2003, the government accused Tyson of illegally bringing in more than 100 Mexican and Central American workers. Prosecutors presented hundreds of hours of videotape, but the jury acquitted Tyson.

This new lawsuit takes it up a notch. The plaintiffs claim the company violated RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Attorney Howard Foster is working a couple of theories, including that Tyson illegally agreed with two large Hispanic civil rights groups not to question the employment applications of anyone with a Hispanic surname.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

OTT: Just down the road from the Gadsden Tyson plant, diners at Pruett's Barbeque enjoy what some say are the best chicken strips in the state. The place is packed with everyone from day laborers to businesswomen in suits. Owner Donna Pruett and diner Ken Eatman(ph).

Ms. DONNA PRUETT (Owner, Pruett's Barbeque): You know, I think that equal opportunity to everyone, but if you're going to live here, you need to be a citizen; you need to be able to speak the language.

Mr. KEN EATMON (Diner): They shouldn't be here if they're not legal, but I think more pressure should be put on the people who work those people.

OTT: The pressure is on Tyson. Because this is a RICO suit, potential damages would be tripled and could reach $150 million. That's an amount that immigration specialist Lilia Velasquez says would definitely send a message to some larger companies.

Ms. VELASQUEZ: They're looking at you, you may be audited, you may be charged with penalties. Yes, it will have a chilling effect on certain companies.

OTT: But, Velasquez says, if anything, it may be the government that's really on trial in this case for not providing employers with an effective, reliable system to screen job applicants.

For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Alabama.

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