in Charlotte raids
Multistate crackdown yields hundreds of arrests
Hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants, including more than 40 in west Charlotte, were arrested Wednesday as part of a multistate raid targeting a Houston-based crate and pallets manufacturer.
Authorities raided IFCO Systems sites in at least nine states and arrested seven current and former company executives on charges that they conspired to transport, harbor and encourage illegal workers to reside in the United States, The Associated Press reported.
No executives were arrested in Charlotte.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief Julie Myers are expected to present an immigration enforcement strategy today targeting employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Congress is debating several proposals that would stiffen penalties against those employers. In December, the House approved a bill that would make it a crime to shelter or aid illegal immigrants and would require employers to verify their workers' status.
Currently, an employer who knowingly hires illegal workers can face fines up to $11,000 per person.
A man who identified himself as a Texas IFCO employee told the Observer that immigration officials "conducted background checks" Wednesday at several sites including Charlotte, Houston, Cincinnati and Phoenix.
He said the company is complying fully with ICE officials and declined further comment.
IFCO lawyers in Houston, where the company's U.S. operations are based, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did local ICE officials.
IFCO has more than 150 locations worldwide, with two recycling centers in South Carolina and one near Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. The company has a crating site in Randolph County.
The company makes, inspects and cleans reusable plastic containers worldwide, many of which are used to transport fresh produce. It also sells new and recycled pallets for commercial use. In 2004, it recorded $495.9 million in revenues, according to its Web site.
A Charlotte IFCO employee who declined to give his name said those arrested had been with the company for several years and were hard workers. He said the Charlotte site on Scott Futrell Drive had never been raided before. He declined to say how many employees worked there and what percentage were arrested.
On Wednesday afternoon, the cars of those detained in Charlotte were still in the parking lot. Celedonio Castro, whose nephew and three friends were arrested, was waiting at Mecklenburg County Jail for keys so he could move the cars.
His nephew, Alejandro Cruz Castro, had arrived in Charlotte about five years ago, found work with IFCO and was happy with his job, Castro said.
"In Mexico, there's not a lot of opportunities," he said. "The government doesn't provide for us."
Around 6 p.m., Castro gave a deputy his nephew's name and three others but grew worried when told they weren't in jail. The deputy said only seven people out of those arrested had been booked, and they would be held without bond because it was a federal case.
It was unclear late Wednesday where the rest of the detainees were being held.
Three other people who said their friends or relatives had been arrested also said they were afraid to visit the jail and get information about the raid because they were here illegally themselves.
It's the second time immigration officials have arrested one of Castro's nephews in Charlotte.
In March 2002, authorities arrested 66 immigrants who worked at the airport on immigration and fraud charges. Most worked for a private cleaning service. Castro said another nephew was arrested, taken to jail and then deported.
-- The Associated Press contributed.
-- Dánica Coto: (704) 358-5065.
Recent Immigration Raids in U.S.
MARCH 13, 2006: 57 illegal immigrants were arrested at four car washes in New Jersey.
FEB. 22, 2006: 56 immigrants were arrested at a construction site in Missouri.
FEB. 10, 2006: 9 immigrants were arrested at a Utah military testing facility.
MARCH 18, 2005: Wal-Mart pays a record $11 million settlement after authorities investigated independent cleaning companies that hired illegal immigrants from 1998 to 2003 to clean the stores.
2005: Throughout the year, authorities arrested 150 immigrants in military installations nationwide. In North Carolina, 74 construction workers were arrested at Camp Lejeune; 49 at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base (through a sting veiled as a mandatory safety meeting by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration); and three at Fort Bragg. "ICE has no tolerance for corporate officers who harbor illegal aliens for their work force. Today's nationwide enforcement actions show how we will use all our investigative tools to bring these individuals to justice."