ATLANTA (AP) — Immigrant advocates say they fear workers at a Georgia poultry plant where a liquid nitrogen leak killed six people may not come forward to federal investigators for fear of arrest and deportation.
Speaking at a news conference, lawyer Shelly Anand called Monday on the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Homeland Security to work together to guarantee any of the workers in the country illegally be shielded from deportation.
Anand, executive director of the Atlanta-based immigrant rights nonprofit Sur Legal Collaborative, called on both federal departments “to find a way to protect these workers by granting them deferred action or continued presence.”
It's not clear if any such protection will be forthcoming, though. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor did not immediately answer questions Monday about whether workers who are talking to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Department of Labor, would be safe from deportation.
Of the six workers who died Thursday after the nitrogen leak at the Foundation Food Group plant northeast of Atlanta, five were Mexican citizens. It's unclear if any of them were in the country illegally. But that and other plants in Gainesville, the hub of Georgia's mammoth poultry industry, rely on a heavily Latino workforce — often a mix of people with and without legal status.
Anand said she and others are working to secure legal representation for workers, which could provide them some protection against deportation. Anand and others also called for criminal investigations by federal and state prosecutors and a higher-level investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Of the 11 other workers and firefighters who were taken to the hospital on Thursday, only one worker remained in the hospital Monday and was in fair condition, according to spokesperson Beth Downs for the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Two workers at the plant were released over the weekend, and the remaining worker’s condition improved from critical to fair.
Advocates said workers continue to need medical attention and counseling for the trauma of watching coworkers die, and warned that too often meatpacking plants treat workers as disposable.
“That is a systemic issue, across the entire industry and other meatpacking plants in our country,” said Maria del Rosario Palacios of Georgia Familias Unidas, a Gainesville-based immigrant advocacy group. “We need to wake up, and not continue to ignore the plight of these workers who have continued to feed us through a pandemic.”
Executives for Foundation Food, which owns the plant, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Monday. The facility makes cooked chicken products for restaurants and other food service operations.
An executive from the company spoke a community prayer vigil for victims on Saturday in Gainesville.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our friends, our team members,” said Nicholas Ancrum, vice president of Human Resources for Foundation Food.
The bodies of the workers who died are undergoing autopsies. The Hall County Sheriff's Office said Monday it will release autopsy information later.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has said that the liquid nitrogen line that failed was part of a refrigeration system on a production line that seasoned, cooked and then froze chicken for later use. On Saturday, Chemical Safety Board Chairman and CEO Katherine Lemos said the nitrogen system had been installed only weeks before.
Investigators said Monday that the new liquid nitrogen system that had been installed in the plant replaced a previous refrigeration system that used ammonia. The older system hadn't yet been removed at the time of the release.
The board said a liquid nitrogen system had been installed on one of the plant's four other lines earlier last year.
Board investigators had said Saturday that they had found some tools near the freezer on the line that malfunctioned. They now say those tools indicated that “unplanned maintenance was being conducted.”