At least 24 workers at Arkansas food-processing plant held in immigration case

Federal Homeland Security Investigations agents detained at least two dozen employees of an Alma food-processing plant Wednesday as part of a criminal investigation.

Bryan Cox, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under which Homeland Security Investigations operates, would not say what agents were investigating Wednesday morning at Bryant Preserving Co.

He said about 24 people were detained. He said Wednesday afternoon that he did not have a specific number of employees who were detained because some were still being processed. Some had been released, he said.

"If there is some violation of federal immigration law, we do not turn a blind eye," he said.

The U.S. attorney's office for the Western District of Arkansas was aware of the raid at the plant and had no comment Wednesday, spokesman Charlie Robbins said.

Bryant Preserving released a statement Wednesday that said several plant employees were accused of document and identity fraud. It said Bryant Preserving was not a subject of the investigation.

"We follow all mandated verification procedures and also use EVerify, a federal web-based system that allows enrolled employers to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States," the statement said.

Bryant Preserving employs 45 to 65 people depending on the time of year, company President Phillip Bryant said.

Of the 28 employees who were detained Wednesday, 20 were women, said Mary Medina, a volunteer for Arkansas United, an immigration advocacy group.

"At this moment, their kids are coming home," she said Wednesday afternoon. "They are probably coming home to an empty home."

About 12 Hispanic people who Medina said were worried about those who were detained showed up Wednesday afternoon at Arkansas United's Immigrant Resource Center in the Fort Smith Adult Education building.

Medina said Arkansas United wanted to get the word out because she believed Immigration and Customs Enforcement was targeting the Hispanic community to separate families.

None of the Hispanic people who were at the center wanted to go on camera when a television news crew arrived, fearing they would be subject to retaliation by immigration authorities if they revealed themselves.

Even though they may be in the country illegally, the detained employees have rights and Arkansas United would see that they get legal representation to help them, Medina said.

"It's their community," she said. "The River Valley community has been affected by this."

Cox said he believed that the investigation at Bryant Preserving is the only Homeland Security Investigations work-site investigation in Arkansas.

In late July, Homeland Security Investigations agents arrested at least 12 people for being in the country illegally during a raid at the Club Trois nightclub in Little Rock. Immigration agents had accompanied Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control officers conducting a compliance check at the nightclub.

Prosecutions of federal court cases to deport illegal aliens have been increasing. In court business Tuesday, two people, Leonel Sosme-Pucheta and Gloria Esperanza Sosme, had trial dates set in the western Arkansas' Texarkana court division on charges of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens for financial gain.

Also on Tuesday in Texarkana, Leticia Alvarez-Bahena was scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Oct. 3 on a charge that he re-entered the country illegally after being removed.

Juvencio Gonzalez-Zepeda was ordered detained Sept. 5 after he was arrested Aug. 31, according to court records in the Hot Springs Division, on a charge that he illegally re-entered the United States.

The complaint said he was identified as being in the country illegally when he was routinely screened in the Washington County jail after being arrested on suspicion of third-degree battery.

State Desk on 09/13/2018