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No TB testing at U.S. border
Legal or not, immigrants not screened when entering country

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

Whether here legally or not, the Wayne Farms employees with active tuberculosis disease probably would not have had to submit to medical screening before entering the United States.

An immigration lawyer said the guest worker visa most legal poultry workers have does not require TB tests or other medical screening.

In October, a former Wayne Farms employee — a Hispanic born outside the United States — was hospitalized with highly contagious active TB disease.

The state Department of Tuberculosis Control Division immediately began testing those who had been in close contact with the hospitalized worker, including employees who worked near him at Wayne Farms' fresh processing plant.

Testing expanded

The testing gradually expanded, in part due to community pressure. Now all 849 employees at the fresh processing plant have been tested, most with TB skin tests.

Only one employee — also a Hispanic born outside the United States — has so far been identified as having active TB disease, but 212 of the 765 tested with skin tests had test results suggesting they were infected with the TB virus.

Doctors have yet to evaluate X-rays of 165 employees who tested positive, but health officials said they would do so quickly. The results of those X-rays will provide a preliminary indication of whether any of them have active TB disease.

Scott Jones, interim director of the Tuberculosis Control Division, said, "The majority of the folks that we're dealing with in this situation are foreign born."

Status not confirmed

Wayne Farms will not say whether the two employees who have active tuberculosis disease were undocumented immigrants. Neither will the company provide information on the immigration status of any of its employees. Nor will it provide percentages as to which employees have different types of visas.

Wayne Farms also refuses to divulge the countries in which the two workers with active TB disease were born.

Initially, Wayne Farms sales and marketing director Stan Hayman said it was illegal for the company to reveal the percentage of workers who have various types of visas.

Charles H. Kuck, an immigration attorney in Atlanta, disputed this position.

"I am not aware of any mandatory rule forbidding the release of how many foreign workers a company has," Kuck said, "but neither am I aware of any rule mandating that a company produce a list or a number of workers on visas working for the company."

Later Hayman said it was Wayne Farms' policy to keep such information confidential.

"I will say that we have more than 50 percent (in our three plants) that are not foreign," Hayman said.

Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton provided the breakdown of Hispanics working at the three Wayne Farms plants. He would not say whether the plant defined Hispanics to mean born outside the United States.

A Hispanic born inside the United States is no more likely to have tuberculosis than a non-Hispanic. The sole reason for high rates of TB infection among Hispanics is that they were exposed to people with active TB disease in countries, such as Mexico and Guatemala, which have a high TB incidence rate.

Wayne Farms has two further-processing plants in which most employees are English speaking. English is not a requirement at the fresh-processing plant on Ipsco Road, where both of those with active tuberculosis worked.

Neither Wayne Farms nor the health department will release the names of the employees with active TB disease.

The fresh processing plant has 849 employees, 68 of them salaried. The Hispanic population is 475.

At Decatur East the company has 388 hourly and 50 salaried employees. The Hispanic population is 59.

At Decatur West the company employs 285 hourly employees and 34 salaried. The Hispanic population is 52.

"The first question is whether H-2A or H-2B workers who enter the United States are given medical screenings," said Boyd Campbell, a Montgomery immigration lawyer. "The answer is no."

Campbell said he would expect most legal Wayne Farms employees to have H-2B visas.

H-2B visas are for non-agricultural temporary workers. H-2A visas are for agricultural temporary workers. Because they are temporary, both are called "non-immigrant visas" or "guest worker visas."

Campbell said an H-2B visa is valid for one year and renewable for three years.

An immigrant visa requires a medical screening, including a TB test, Campbell said. He doubted that many poultry plant workers, if any, would have immigrant visas.

"They're not going to be eligible for an immigrant visa," Campbell said, "so they're not going to get a medical screening in connection with an immigrant visa to be lawfully admitted for permanent residence. It's not going to happen."

Those foreign-born Wayne Farms employees who do not have H-2B visas are likely to be in the United States illegally, Campbell said.

"All the chicken plants have at least some workers who are illegal," Campbell said.

In order to hire a worker with an H-2B visa, a company must apply for permission from the U.S. Department of Labor. According to Department of Labor records, Wayne Farms did not apply for any H-2A or H-2B certifications between 2000 and 2006, the most recent year in which the records were published.

"We do not knowingly hire illegal immigrants," said Singleton.

Hayman said Wayne Farms follows all federal rules on verifying employee eligibility. He said job applicants supply a Social Security number, which the company submits to a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service database.

He said the company also checks the Social Security number against its own database of applicants.

"If the same Social Security number comes up at other Wayne Farms sites, they investigate," Hayman said, because that might mean multiple illegal applicants are using the same Social Security number.

While refusing to state how many employees with H-2B visas work at the Morgan County plants, he said Wayne Farms does not recruit employees in Mexico.

To obtain H-2B certification, Kuch said, there must be contact between the employer and prospective employee outside of the United States. Sometimes companies recruit directly; sometimes they hire an agent in the other country to identify prospective employees.

"I don't know if we have an agent in Mexico," Hayman said. "We recruit for jobs in Decatur."

Hayman said not only Wayne Farms, but Decatur, would be in a mess if the hiring of foreign workers came to a halt. A small percentage of such workers, he said, are at Wayne Farms.

Hayman said the company is doing everything it can to verify that its employees are in the country legally. He said he is frustrated that people criticize the company for its hiring practices.

"Part of the frustration is that we've used every tool available," he said. "If the Legislature would provide more verification tools, we'd be tickled to death, as long as it was legislated for everybody."

Hayman said all the company can do is use the tools available to verify employees, and hire the best employees available.

"It's an immigration issue," Hayman said. "We're a chicken company. At the end of the day, we can't solve that problem."

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