Then, earlier this year, an investigation began by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). ICE agents arrested a Stillmore man in the spring, accusing him of supplying counterfeit documents to workers. The man's records were then used to identify other workers. For 10 weeks, ICE trained company managers to spot forgeries and check Social Security numbers. About 30 people who had not been weeded out by the company were arrested at the plant in an orderly fashion over Labor Day weekend, according to a plant spokesperson.
ICE agents also raided several homes in town. Witnesses say agents popped up through floor boards and broke windows.
"Everything we did [in this investigation] was in accordance with the immigration laws of this country," says Marc Raimondi, DHS spokesman.
But some, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have voiced concerns about the searches.
"Hispanics came to Stillmore and opened up stores that had been closed for years, and now there's a sadness in how they were treated," says Father Vic Subb, who worked for a Catholic ministry in town for six years.
Proponents of immigration law enforcement say the government has a right to get tough on illegal immigrants and those who employ them. Led by Gov. Sonny Perdue, Georgia lawmakers say they will go after people who have broken immigration laws. Georgia has the fastest growing population of illegal immigrants, estimated at 470,000.
"I firmly believe that we [as a nation] are taking in more immigrants than we have the capacity to feed, educate or employ," says D.A. King, president of Dustin Inman Society in Marietta, Ga., which opposes illegal migration of workers across the border.
This year, ICE has rounded up 2,100 people in workplace raids nationwide compared with 1,145 in 2005.
Meanwhile, more communities are signing agreements to work with ICE to undertake deportation proceedings for scofflaws and prisoners. In Charlotte, more than 600 people have been deported through hearings initiated by local officials.