David Bacon Stories & Photographs


The Bitter Truth about Immigration Reform
By David Bacon
The American Prospect, 11/05

OMAHA, NE (10/21/05) - Hiding from the Border Patrol in an air conditioning duct for nine and a half hours, Jorge Mendez couldn't even come down to urinate. As agents passed below, he had to keep from making the slightest noise. "I thought about my wife and my family," he remembers. "I had filled out my application to get all of them documents. If the migra had taken me, I would have ruined all of that. I thought of all of my hopes and dreams ending there. From the moment I saw the migra, I thought, 'Everything is over.'"

Miraculously, the agents left without finding him. "Thank God I escaped," he says fervently.

Unlike 212 of his 900 coworkers, Mendez had narrowly survived one of the most famous immigration raids in modern US history - the enforcement action at Nebraska Beef on December 6, 2000. That day, agents swooped down on the big Omaha meatpacking plant. They picked up three managers and another three labor recruiters, accusing them of conspiring to bring workers up from Mexico and supplying them with false documents.

In bloodstained work clothes, the immigrant laborers were shackled like criminals, and packed into busses. Many Omaha children didn't see their fathers or mothers come home that night. Instead, their parents were driven hundreds of miles to the border, and dumped on the other side.

Even for those who escaped, like Mendez, the raid was a frightening and deeply humiliating experience. Assessing its impact, it's not unreasonable to ask, who gained, who lost, and who paid the price?

For more than a decade, Omaha has been a testing ground for the enforcement of US immigration policy, in large part because the city, and the small towns of Nebraska and Iowa which surround it, are ground zero for the meatpacking industry. Its labor needs are shaping the debate in Congress, which will determine who benefits from the country's immigration laws. By the same token, it is a good place to ask whether immigration policy has worked at all in the past, and if so, in whose interest?

The Immigration and Naturalization Service said it had evidence a Nebraska Beef recruiter in Mexico was offering jobs at $8.50/hour, a $100 signing bonus, free housing, and fake Social Security cards. But the agency deported the very people who could have testified about how they were hired, so a Federal judge dismissed the charges in April 2002. They company walked.

The workers were not so fortunate. The deportations heightened a climate of fear inside the plant - already a fact of life for those without papers. "If they treat you poorly at work, you have to take it," Mendez explains. People fear, not just raids, but the consequences of losing their jobs. Employer sanctions, a provision of the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986, make holding a job a crime for an undocumented worker. "You have to keep working because if you lose that job, finding another is difficult. When you're working at the plant and don't have papers, you're always being threatened, every day, that the migra [the Border Patrol] is coming."

After the raid, line speed increased to make up for the missing workers, beyond the normal rate of 2400 cows a day, or one killed and cut apart every 24 seconds. When seven of them protested and demanded a raise to compensate, they were fired. Many remaining workers, angrered by the raid and firings, tried to organize a union. The fear was too strong, however. When the union election finally took place on August 17, 2001, just months afterwards, a majority voted against the United Food and Commercial Workers, 452 to 345.

The raid wasn't Nebraska Beef's first experience with employer sanctions. For an entire year in 1998, the Immigration and Naturalization Service went through the employment records of every meatpacking plant in the state of Nebraska, and two counties next door in Iowa, during Operation Vanguard. Poring through the documents of 24,310 people employed in 40 factories, they pulled out 4,762 names. These individuals were sent letters, asking them to come in for a chat with an INS agent down at the plant. About a thousand actually did that. Of them, 34 people were found to be in the country illegally and deported. The rest, over 3500 people, left their jobs, whether for immigration reasons or just as part of normal turnover. At Nebraska Beef, over 300 people quit.

Employers complained. After Operation Vanguard, Nebraska's Governor (now US Secretary of Agriculture) Mike Johanns and the American Meatpacking Institute accused the INS of creating production bottlenecks, and implied they'd been denied a necessary source of labor. Within six months, however, the meatpacking workforce had returned to previous levels. Omaha has a reputation as a place where people can find work, and they come looking for it, not just from Mexico and Central America, but from barrios across the US.

For immigration authorities (the INS before 2002, and now the Bureau of Immigration Control and Enforcement - BICE) the results at first seemed negative. The agency commonly defends sanctions by arguing they discourage workers from coming to the US illegally, and free up jobs for citizens and legal residents, especially in communities with high unemployment. INS/BICE officials sometimes accompany the media to a local unemployment office after a raid, and post the jobs that supposedly have been vacated.

In fact, however, the number of people coming to the US did not diminish with increased enforcement. According to the Census Bureau and the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 10.3 million undocumented residents in the country, an increase from 8.4 million in 2000. They estimate that the number has increased at 485,000/year - the description of a steady, social process, rather than a failure by immigration authorities. Internationally, over 130 million people now live outside the countries where they were born, on all continents. They are overwhelmingly moving from poorer to richer countries. It's unrealistic to expect workplace raids to deflect such an enormous global movement of people.

"We're used to working, and the way people live here is very different," Mendez explains. "Here what you earn is enough to eat, to dress, no luxuries but a way of getting around. In Mexico, you dress or you eat - you don't earn enough to eat, dress and live. You work a lot here too, but at least you have something to show."

People also dream for their children. "They're never going to have to go through what we went through to get here," Mendez swears. He doesn't want them to work in meatpacking plants, and they have options he didn't. As in many immigrant families, the children are citizens, while other family members have legal residence, and some are still undocumented. Immigration is a process. "My daughters were born here in the United States and have all of the privileges of citizenship. They can come and go anytime they want," he says proudly.

But hard work, striving toward security and a better life for a new generation, isn't rewarded by immigration policy. Instead, raids and sanctions make up a set of terrifying dangers, to be avoided at all cost.

They didn't produce jobs for anyone else, either. The communities in Omaha that used to provide workers for the meatpacking plants, and that no longer do so today, have seen almost no effect from immigration enforcement.

There have always been Mexicans and Latinos in Omaha. Immigrants have populated South Omaha's working class neighborhoods over a century (22% in 1900). They still do today (26%). Over the last three decades, however, meatpacking has moved from plants in urban centers, like Omaha and Chicago, to small towns closer to the areas where livestock are raised. The Latino population in Nebraska as a whole rose by 94.75% from 1990 to 2005, due to the increase in the small meatpacking towns within a few hours radius. Lexington's barrio made up only 5% of its population in 1990, but a quarter just three years later.

In the late 1960s, Omaha's three largest plants closed, costing the jobs of over 10,000 workers. Omaha's Black community fought hard to pull down the color line in these plants in the 1930s and 40s. The jobs provided not just economic stability, but political power. In the 1950s, Black members used their hard-won base in the United Packinghouse Workers to demand that bars, restaurants and other public establishments take down segregationist restrictions. In the McCarthyite hysteria of the time, Blacks and their allies were labeled as reds by a conservative local union leaders.

Then came the closures, devastating Omaha's African American neighborhoods. Although other plants eventually took their places - Nebraska Beef, Northern States Beef (now Swift), and Greater Omaha Packing Company - the percentage of African American workers remains tiny. Immigration raids and Operation Vanguard didn't create a single job for North Omaha's African American neighborhoods. Instead, packers relied on recruiting labor from further and further away, driven by a desire to keep labor costs low.

Meatpacking wages have steadily fallen behind the manufacturing average. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1980 slaughtering plant wages were 1.16 times the manufacturing average. After twenty-five years, they are now .76 times that average. US manufacturing wages certainly haven't soared - in fact, they've fallen behind inflation. But meatpacking wages, in relative terms, have fallen faster. Considering how hard and dirty a slaughterhouse job can get, that wage is not a great attraction to any native-born or longtime-resident worker who can find another job. Meatpacking companies therefore face a choice - raise wages, or find other workers.

Unionization of packinghouse workers also fell from over 80% in 1980 to less than 50% today. In Nebraska, like other meatpacking states, right-to-work laws prohibit unions from requiring membership. Nebraska now has an average manufacturing wage of $12.32, 13.2% below the production average for the other 15 states where meatpacking is a major industry.

Immigration raids didn't raise wages, any more than they created jobs. If anything, they lowered them by making workers more vulnerable, creating a climate of fear in which union organization was much harder.

Sanctions enforcement, however, did become a means to pressure Congress, and set a political agenda into motion. One of Operation Vanguard's architects, then-Dallas District Director Mark Reed, boasted he would force employer groups to support guest worker legislation. "We depend on foreign labor" he declared at the operation's height. "How can we get unauthorized [undocumented] workers back into the workforce in a legal way? If we don't have illegal immigration anymore, we'll have the political support for guest worker."

There's no question that many US industries have become dependent on immigrant labor. The Migrant Policy Institute reports that in 1990 11.6 million immigrants made up 9% of the US workforce, and that by 2002, their numbers had grown to 20.3 million workers, or 14% of the workforce. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that, in 2001, undocumented workers comprised 58 percent of the work force in agriculture, 23.8 percent in private household services, 16.6 percent in business services, 9.1 percent in restaurants, and 6.4 percent in construction.

Reed might have been a little ahead of his time, in thinking Congress was prepared to act quickly. But he did get industry thinking. In the operation's wake, large employer groups, the American Meat Institute prominent among them, began pushing for guest worker programs tailored to industry.

In 2002, the AMI issued a call for immigration reform. It suggested automating the INS database, so employers could verify immigration documents easily, and moderating enforcement actions against employers who try to comply. Its centerpiece called for "creating a new, separate employment-based immigrant visa category covering mid- to low-skill workers." The proposal has been embraced by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which encompasses 36 employer groups from drug stores (think Wal-Mart) to hotel chains.

President George Bush, who signed onto the idea at the beginning of his administration, calls it "connecting willing employers with willing employees." For industry, the adoption of guest worker proposals by the president and powerful forces in Congress is an indirect benefit from Operation Vanguard and the Nebraska Beef raid. These enforcement actions helped provide the political momentum for guest worker proposals.

Two major bills in Congress reflect the AMI and EWIC agenda. One, the Kennedy/McCain bill, would allow corporations to recruit 400,000 workers annually, offering these temporary immigrants the chance to apply for permanent residence if they remain constantly employed for four years. The bill allows the currently undocumented to become guest workers too, with the promise that they also can apply for legal residence, after six years. Meanwhile, employer sanctions would be enforced much more systematically, forcing them to either sign up or leave. Another bill, by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), allows companies to recruit guest workers for more limited periods, after which they'd have to go home. The currently undocumented would have to go back home too, in order to apply for guest worker visas. The bill has no real legalization program, and would direct enormous new resources into sanctions enforcement. President Bush has introduced a proposal very much like the Cornyn bill.

The American Meat Institute doesn't endorse any particular proposal. According to Rob Rosado, director of legislative affairs, meatpackers would like to normalize the status of the industry's current workforce, "to allow the people already working to continue to work." The key issue, however, is the constant stream of new workers needed to keep plants running. "We support a new guest worker visa," Rosado explains, "since there isn't one currently for permanent, fulltime non-seasonal workers." Asked if the industry would accept a basic wage guarantee for those workers, he responded that "we don't want the government setting wages. The market determines wages."

If either bill becomes law, plants like Nebraska Beef could gradually recruit new guest workers as normal turnover opened up jobs, essentially doing legally what the government accused the company of doing in violation of the law five years ago.

"Hispanics are always viewed as the labor force, and the only right we have is the right to come here and work," says Tiberio Chavez, who helped lead successful efforts to organize another Omaha meatpacking plant, Northern States Beef. Immigrants will only have rights if they can fight for them, he says, and proposals for immigration reform can make that easier or harder. "The companies want to make more money, and if one day they can make us work without pay, then they will. But the day we organize a strong united effort we will force them to grant us the rights we are entitled to, because all human beings have rights," he exclaims.

But union organizers believe they'd have a hard time coming to the aid of any worker who couldn't get a green card, and didn't want to sign up as a guest worker. Social Security and the Department of Labor inspectors would check their immigration status of any worker who complained about unpaid wages or overtime, under the Kennedy/McCain or Cornyn bills. Under this new regime of employer sanctions, the undocumented would be more vulnerable than ever.

Would workers on temporary visas be likely to sign a union card, the next time the line speed got too fast, or if wages fell even further behind the manufacturing average?

Sergio Sosa was the key organizer in the alliance between Omaha Together One Community, a community project of the Industrial Areas Foundation, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, which successfully organized the union at Northern States Beef. Sosa says the obstacles for guest workers would be daunting. "With community support it's still possible for workers to resist, even when they have no papers," he says, pointing to the way the documented and undocumented worked together at Northern States. "But guest workers are cut off from the community. By definition they're temporary, and can't put down roots or look to a future here. Their function is to work and leave."

Last year Rodolfo Bobadilla, bishop of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, visited his countrymen working in Omaha's meatpacking plants. With the clarity of an outsider he observed that "the US needs these workers, so there should be a system to allow them to come to this country in a legal manner. But when only men come to the US on a temporary basis," he warned, "the family disintegrates. Our people here need to keep their own culture, and integrate themselves in US culture as well. They need to participate in social movements to protect themselves. People must plant their roots."

And in Congress, African American political leaders agree. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have sponsored a third alternative, the comprehensive immigration reform proposal introduced by Houston Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). Her bill, like the reform signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, would allow the undocumented to apply for permanent legal status if they have been living in the US for five years, and understand basic English. Fees paid by applicants would fund job training and creation in communities with high unemployment. Her bill has no guest worker provision, and instead strengthens enforcement of the workplace rights of immigrants.

"This would be better for us," says Sosa. "If we're going to improve conditions in our communities, we need legal status for those who lack it. We're prepared to struggle for something better, but we need enforcement which will make that easier, not harder."

In April, the National Labor Relations Board finally threw out the 2001 union election at Nebraska Beef, citing the company's illegal intimidation tactics. The union and OTOC at first chose another date for an election, and then withdrew their petition as that date grew near. One worker, Jesus Lopez, fired in April, said the company was threatening to close the plant if the union won, an illegal campaign tactic.

"It took four years to throw out that old election because of the fear those same tactics created," Sosa exclaims angrily. "It's pretty obvious to workers that the company can violate all kinds of laws without paying a penalty. And Congress, instead of enforcing the laws that should guarantee workers their rights, and allow them to raise the incomes of their families, is debating an immigration reform that will just help the company even more. Who do you think is the real winner here?"


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