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Feds Eye Firms Using Illegal Workers

Thirty-three people were taken into custody this morning when police assisted federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials execute a search warrant at a village business.
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Homeland Security is getting tough on illegal immigrants and the companies that hire them. In a series of nationwide raids, agents on Wednesday arrested executives and employees of a manufacturing company – and the feds warn this is just the beginning.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the results of the sting on Thursday, calling it the largest worksite enforcement operation in U.S. history.

"In fact, we arrested more people in this single worksite enforcement operation than in the entirety of last year," he said

Chertoff said agents of Immigration and Custom Enforcement raided the offices and plants of IFCO Systems across the country. The raids resulted in the arrests of seven managers and 1,187 of the firm's illegal employees across 26 states. Chertoff said about 53 percent of the firm's employees during 2005 had invalid or mismatched Social Security numbers.

Seven current and former IFCO managers were charged with conspiracy to transport, harbor and encourage illegal workers to continue working for the company. Chertoff warned that the investigation into IFCO is continuing and there may be more charges filed in the coming weeks and months.

"The charges in the criminal complaints allege harboring aliens for illegal advantage and, in two instances, document fraud. I want to emphasize the investigation is continuing. At some point, further charges may be brought," he said.

Raids took place at several locations in upstate New York, Biglerville, Pa.; Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati, Houston, Phoenix, Richmond, Va., and Westborough, Mass. German-based IFCO Systems is a leading provider of pallet services in the U.S., focusing on recycling millions of wooden platforms used to stack and move goods. It operates about five dozen facilities throughout the nation.

Chertoff said the sting operation was part of a larger program to crack down on companies that violate the nation's immigration worker laws.

"The fact of the matter is we are looking at organizations that promote the harboring and the hiring of illegal, undocumented workers. We're looking at them in the same way we look at other criminal organizations," he said.

Chertoff warned that companies who chose not to use tools that ensure that their workers are legal will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

"When people choose not to use those tools or they ignore obvious violation of the law in hiring people who are not properly in this country, then we've got to apply tough sanctions and increased enforcement against people who are willful law violators," Chertoff said.

CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports that the get-tough policy is a crackdown with consequences. Detention centers are filling up rapidly, and some are already over capacity.

"We'll be forced to look for more bed space," says George Molinar, who runs the facility near San Pedro, Calif.

Pitts reports that detaining and deporting illegal aliens is already an expensive proposition. In 2005, it cost taxpayers $56 million in flight costs — an average of $600 per detainee for every flight home.

The issues related to illegal immigration are complicated, too.

CBS News correspondent Drew Levinson reports some immigrant rights advocates question the timing of these raids, coming as thousands of demonstrators are taking to the streets in many cities protesting proposals pending in Congress.

"This is just intimidation, plain intimidation," said Jorge Mujica.

IFCO Systems acknowledged that a number of employees were detained Wednesday and pledged to cooperate with the investigation.

"It is our policy to comply with all federal and state employment requirements," the company said in a statement.

While Chertoff is promising a continued crackdown on employers who hire illegal workers, Congress gets back to work on an immigration reform bill when lawmakers return from spring break next week.