Assistant U.S. Attorney John MacCoon told jurors he would prove the conspiracy started in 1994 after plant managers had difficulty hiring legal production workers with the company's low wages. He said the evidence would show the immigration conspiracy went to Tyson's top levels, where it was encouraged because it boosted profits.
"This trial is about corporate greed," MacCoon said.
He said illegal workers at Tyson plants in Shelbyville and Wilkesboro, N.C., at one point outnumbered legitimate employees.
Tyson's attorney, Tom Green, said any hiring of illegal immigrants was done by a few plant managers and was not known to executives at Tyson headquarters in Springdale, Ark.
"No one in senior management knew," Green said. "No member of senior management ever violated immigration laws or encouraged" anyone else to do so.
Green told jurors to expect one or more former Tyson employees to testify: "Hopefully, I will get them to admit they did this on their own."
A December 2001 indictment accuses Tyson and other defendants of taking part in a conspiracy in which illegal workers were smuggled to poultry plants in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Arkansas.
Tyson attorneys have said they turned down a government demand for $100 million to have the charges dismissed. They have also accused the government of using undercover agents to entrap Tyson employees.
MacCoon said he would prove the conspiracy through secretly recorded conversations between undercover agents and Tyson managers, and through the testimony of two former Tyson managers who have struck plea-bargain deals.
The prosecutor said workers from Mexico and Central America were either smuggled into the country and given false identification or knowingly hired as illegals through agencies that provided temporary help.
MacCoon said Tyson sought illegal immigrants because they "would work for low wages and never complain - no matter how much they were exploited."
He described the Shelbyville plant as "the proving ground of a nationwide conspiracy by Tyson." Shelbyville has Tennessee's highest percentage of Hispanic residents - 8 percent, according to the 2000 Census.
Green said the company was obeying immigration laws. He said that during the government's undercover investigation, the company was also being investigated for employment discrimination complaints. He said the company was not "causing people to use false documents" to get jobs.
In addition to the company, the defendants include Gerald Lankford, 63, of North Wilkesboro, N.C., a former human relations manager; and two former managers, Robert Hash, 49, of Greenwood, Ark.; and Keith Snyder, 42, of Bella Vista, Ark.
By Bill Poovey