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story.lead_photo.caption Workers from PH Foods and their supporters hold signs on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 in Morton, Miss., including one that says “We need work!” in Spanish after workers from the chicken processing plant said they were fired. Workers say the plant fired the majority of remaining workers days after federal agents arrested 99 people there for immigration violations. (AP Photo/Terry Truett)

A Mississippi chicken-processing plant fired most of its remaining workers after nearly 100 accused of immigration violations were arrested last week, witnesses said, an indication that the crackdown will make finding work in the state's poultry industry more difficult for Hispanic immigrants.

Terry Truett, a volunteer with the Mississippi Immigration Coalition, said she and others were called Tuesday to a Morton park where former PH Food workers were staging a protest, saying the company had abruptly fired them at the end of their shifts and was illegally withholding pay.

It's unclear exactly how many were fired, although Truett said more than 100 workers' names were collected at the protest in Morton, about 40 miles east of Jackson.

PH Food is one of seven Mississippi plants raided Aug. 7 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The agency arrested 680 people accused of working in the United States without legal permission, quickly releasing about 300. The agency also seized company documents as part of an investigation into what managers knew. The immigration agency said it arrested 99 people at PH Food.

Normally, when a company with more than 100 employees lays off more than a third of its workforce, it must give 60 days' notice to affected employees, and local and state government. Dianne Bell, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Security, said PH Foods has not filed notice with the state. Bell said a company employee told her Wednesday that there had been no layoffs.

Truett and others say most of the people arrested at PH Food worked on the first shift. Second-shift workers trickled back in the days after the raid even though most lack legal status, according to the Rev. Roberto Mena of St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church.

"Some -- almost all of them -- they are undocumented in some way," Mena said.

Truett and Mena said workers came to the church after the Tuesday protest to consult with lawyers. Others held a meeting at a restaurant because the church was too small for the crowd.

A search warrant unsealed last week cites a confidential informant telling investigators that managers at PH Food knew most of its 240 employees didn't have legal permission to work in the United States. The informant told investigators that managers encouraged workers to make up Social Security numbers and tried to use a payroll outsourcing firm in Louisiana to mask their activities.

The informant also alleged that PH Food and the payroll company didn't try to verify the authenticity of work documents, even though Mississippi law requires employers to check documents using E-Verify, an otherwise voluntary online federal system. At other plants that were raided, investigators presented efforts that employees were working under assumed but real identities often bought on the black market.

No PH Food managers have been charged, although U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst has said a criminal investigation continues.

A Section on 08/16/2019

Print Headline: Plant said to fire workers after raid

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