WASHINGTON, Apr 21 (Reuters) Almost 1,200 illegal immigrants and seven current or former managers at a Netherlands-based firm that hired them were arrested as part of a national crackdown, US authorities said.
Raids were carried out this week in 26 states at plants operated by IFCO Systems North America, which is based in Houston and makes wooden pallets and crates.
The arrests, substantially larger in number than other sweeps announced by federal officials in the last year, come as congressional debate over overhauling US immigration laws has become a major political issue.
Federal prosecutors said the seven current or former managers were charged with conspiracy to transport, harbor and encourage illegal immigrants to reside in the United States for commercial advantage and financial gain. The managers face up to 10 years in prison and a 250,000 dollas fine for each illegal immigrant worker.
IFCO said in a statement that it is cooperating fully with the investigation and that it hopes ''to have this matter resolved as soon as possible.'' The North American operation is a unit IFCO Systems, based in Amsterdam.
About half of the firm's 5,800 US employees in 2005 had invalid or mismatched Social Security numbers, federal officials said.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters marched in US cities on April 10 to protest proposed legislation that would turn millions of illegal immigrants into criminals and would fence off sections of the US border with Mexico.
Several of the proposals would increase the penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants. An estimated 7 million of the 11.5 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States are employed, meaning about one in 20 US workers is illegal.
Officials said the arrests underscored efforts by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement to crack down on illegal immigrant workers and their employers Those arrested were identified as Michael Ames, 44, of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts; Robert Belvin, 43, of Clifton Park, New York; Abelino Chicas, 40, of Houston; Scott Dodge, 43, of Albany, New York; William Hoskins, 29, of Cincinnati; James Rice, 36, of Houston, and Dario Salzano, 36, of Amsterdam, New York.
Officials said search warrants were executed at IFCO plants in Guilderland, New York, Cincinnati, Westborough, Massachusetts, Richmond, Virginia and Bilgerville, Pennsylvania. There also were raids at several of its distribution centers in New York.
The arrests were part of a criminal investigation of IFCO's Pallet Management Services division that began more than a year ago, the officials said.
The case was brought by Glenn Suddaby, the US attorney in upstate New York.
REUTERS SC PM0455