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GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Federal agents swept through a chicken processing plant Tuesday, detaining more than 300 suspected illegal immigrants, sending panicked workers running and screaming through the hallways. Worried relatives collected 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," 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.
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 Rooker who remained at the plant five hours after the raid because police still had his truck blocked.
Immigration officials kept the workers inside, spending 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, 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.
When he heard about the raid, Mateo Matias got his neighbor's three children out of school and brought them to the plant. He wanted immigration officials to see the boys -- ages 4, 5 and 6 -- in hopes they might release their mother, who is from Guatemala, where her husband remains.
"The mother is fighting for a better life so the children can survive," Matias said.
House of Raeford processes chickens and turkeys in eight plants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan. A sales manager at the Greenville plant referred questions to the company's Rose Hill, N.C., headquarters, where a woman answering the phone said there was no immediate comment.
Federal prosecutors and immigration agents have been investigating the plant's hiring practices for several months. Eleven supervisors and the plant's human resources director have been charged, most accused of falsifying documents. Seven have pleaded guilty, three are awaiting trial and two have fled, McDonald said.
U.S. Attorney Walt Wilkins wouldn't say whether other plants or executives were being investigated.
The Charlotte Observer first reported in February that plant workers were in the country illegally and company managers knew it.
One worker backed up that account Tuesday.
"Everyone knew most of the workers were illegal. It was no secret. We just came in and did our work and you kept to yourself," said Dorothy Anthony, who works with sister Alice on the deboning line.
The women, both American citizens, were released after showing ID.
Greenville immigration attorney Amy Shelley said the phone at her law firm was ringing nonstop Tuesday as word of the raid spread. She didn't have any clients yet, but figures she will represent some of the arrested workers.
"The frustrating thing is most of their families don't know anything right now either," she said.
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.