- Associated Press - Thursday, July 17, 2014

MIAMI (AP) - Florida authorities have arrested more than 100 workers at a Naples vegetable packing plant for allegedly using fake identities to get their jobs.

The state’s Division of Insurance Fraud led Wednesday’s raid, in which at least 105 people were taken to the Collier County jail. A labor attorney said all or nearly all of the workers are immigrants. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they are providing support to state investigators in the case.

The owner of the company, Alfie Oakes, told local media he had no idea the fraud was occurring. Oakes said in an email to The Associated Press that his company followed all legal guidelines when hiring employees.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who oversees insurance fraud cases, said the investigation began when a former employee sought medical attention for a job-related injury and admitted using a fake identity to get hired. Using a fake ID to gain employment or to submit a benefit claim is a third-degree felony, under Florida law.

“Any time a person commits insurance fraud it drives up the cost of insurance for everyone,” Atwater said.

Atwater said the investigation remains open, but there was no evidence the employers were aware of the alleged crimes. State investigators said of the more than 100 detained, at least 27 stole identities of victims in 25 other states.

Labor attorney Andrea Ortega, who volunteers with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said she arrived at the warehouse Wednesday evening to find dozens of families waiting nearby for word of their loved ones. She said all or nearly all of those arrested were immigrants.

“One man in the parking lot said his wife had been arrested. He told me he was too scared to go talk to officers (because of his own immigration status) and was waiting in the parking lot hoping someone would do him the favor of asking what had happened,” she said.

Collier County Sheriff’s deputies took the workers to the local jail on charges of workers’ compensation fraud. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials can request that local authorities hold for more than 48 hours individuals accused of crimes who may be eligible for deportation.

ICE Spokeswoman Tammy Spicer said her agency is providing support to state investigators. She said any resulting immigration enforcement actions would be handled on a case by case basis.

Pastor Jesus Ortega of the Assemblies of God Ministry of Belem said he was helping the families of five detained parishioners gather the money for the $10,000 bond. He said all five had been in the country roughly a decade. Ortega said one 30-year-old woman was five months pregnant.

“They are all very upset. They are people who came to work and to help their families get ahead. It’s very hard for them,” he said.

Oakes said in the email that his company replaced the detained workers quickly and only lost about a half day of production.

“We will try to discourage this from happening in the future, however we run the risk of discrimination if we challenge workers that show a valid ID and Social Security (number)” he said.

Federal worksite raids at companies with large numbers of immigrant workers made headlines under President George W. Bush, but have been rare under the Obama administration, which has focused more on employers who violate immigration and employment law, than the workers themselves.


AP Reporter Fernando Peinado contributed to this report from Miami.


Follow Laura Wides-Munoz on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lwmunoz


Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, https://www.naplesnews.com

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