GREENVILLE, S.C. --- Federal agents swept through a chicken processing plant Tuesday, detaining more than 300 people suspected of being illegal immigrants, sending panicked workers screaming through the hallways. Worried relatives collected outside, fearful their loved ones would be deported.
Police and agents 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," Ms. 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. He had to duck into a bathroom to avoid what he called a stampede of people.
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, Mr. McDonald said. Immigration agents scoured the plant for paperwork and other information for the investigation.
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, Mr. McDonald said.