GREENVILLE, S.C. | Federal agents swept through a chicken-processing plant Tuesday, detaining more than 300 suspected illegal immigrants and sending panicked workers running and screaming through the hallways.
Worried relatives gathered outside, fearful their loved ones would be deported.
Police and agents during a shift change ordered all workers at the House of Raeford’s Columbia Farms to show identification, according to officials and witnesses.
The business had been under scrutiny for months, and the raid comes on the heels of even larger roundups at plants across the country.
Maria Juan, 22, was one of about 50 relatives and friends who huddled at the edge of the plant after the raid, some weeping and others talking frantically on cell phones.
She was seeking information about her 68-year-old grandmother, a legal immigrant from Guatemala who went to work without identification papers but was later released.
“Families are going to be broken apart,” Miss Juan said. “There will be kids and babies left behind. Why are they doing this? Why? They didn’t do anything. They only wanted to work.”
Workers began running down hallways crying and screaming, said Herbert Rooker, 54, a third-shift janitor. He wore a blue band on his wrist, indicating agents had determined he was in the country legally.
Mr. Rooker had to duck into a bathroom to avoid what he called a stampede of people.
“I didn’t know what they were running from. I had no reason to run,” said Mr. Rooker, who remained at the plant five hours after the raid because police still had his truck blocked.
Immigration officials kept the workers inside and spent most of the morning trying to figure out how many are in the country illegally, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald said.
The number could be substantial. A recent review found that immigration paperwork for more than 775 of 825 workers contained false information, Mr. McDonald said.
Immigration agents scoured the plant for paperwork and other information for the investigation.
Hector Zapata said he was hauled in when he dropped his daughter off for work. Agents ignored his cries that he didn’t work there, he said. Seven hours later, his daughter, in the U.S. legally, emerged, joining dozens of others milling around trying to figure out where their loved ones were being taken.
Officials are arranging to care for children of workers detained in the raid, one of several nationwide this year.
In August, more than 600 suspected illegal immigrants were detained at a Mississippi transformer plant in the largest single-workplace immigration raid in U.S. history.
And in May, federal immigration officials swept into Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant, in Iowa. Nearly 400 workers were detained and dozens of fraudulent permanent resident alien cards were seized from the plant’s human resources department, according to court records.