David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Ethnic Cleansing in Nebraska
by David Bacon

OMAHA, NEBRASKA (7/19/99) - Before Concepcion Vargas came to Nebraska, she was a maquiladora worker - a child of the border, born and brought up in Reynosa, Mexico, across the river from Texas. To get to the Great Plains, she followed the migrant stream pioneered by her brother Alfredo, who after receiving immigration amnesty in 1986 set off across the country, looking for a better job and higher pay than he could get in the sweatshops of East LA.

Alfredo wound up in a huge pork processing plant owned by meatpacking giant IBP Inc. in Madison, a tiny town in mid-Nebraska. He began working on the line for $8.00/hour, sleeping in the park and his car until he saved enough to rent a place. Then Alfredo brought his sister-in-law, who brought her brother Doroteo, Concepcion's husband.

"It's like a chain," Concepcion explains. "First one person comes, and then they bring someone else. And we all are looking for something better because the situation at home is so bad we can't survive. So three months after Doroteo left for Madison, he came back and got my daughter and me."

But Doroteo and Concepcion had a problem - they couldn't get into the plant without a Social Security card and an ID with a picture on it. And while Doroteo did what work he could fixing cars, their four-year old daughter began to get sick from the unaccustomed cold. They had no money for a doctor, and stayed awake in bed all night, listening to her cough.

"Doroteo didn't want me to get a job, but we made an agreement," Concepcion remembers. "We would both try to get papers, and whoever got them first would go to work. In the end, that was me."

A friend sold them a birth certificate and Social Security card for $650. "When you're Mexican here, and you have family, they know who to go to for papers," she explains. Her friend helped her to go to the motor vehicle department, and get the picture ID. "The day my ID came in the mail, I went down to IBP and applied for a job. They accepted me right away."

For $6/hour, she got work as a temp on a line processing bacon, ham and cooked meat. It was a far cry from the job she had in Reynosa, where her business administration certificate had qualified her for a position training other workers.

"They put me to work in a freezing cold room," Concepcion recalls. "I had to strip plastic bags off big legs of meat, which were frozen and hard as rocks. I put them in a big vat, and after there were a hundred or so, we filled the vat with water to thaw them."

Wearing only a light sweater, she began to freeze. "The work was hard, and I felt humiliated. Finally, I got so cold I asked permission from the supervisor to go to the bathroom. When I left the line, I wasn't planning to come back. I went upstairs to the bathrooms. But there, my daughter's face appeared before me. Her eyes were looking at me, and I heard her coughing, the way she had all night. I remembered how much we needed the money.

"I didn't go to the bathroom, and I didn't leave either. I just stood there, crying. Finally, I went back to work."

To the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Concepcion and Doroteo Vargas are the enemy. The INS refers to them as criminal aliens. And prying them loose from their IBP jobs has become the focal point of the Clinton administration's flagship program for ending undocumented immigration - Operation Vanguard.

Since last fall, the state of Nebraska and three counties in next-door Iowa have become a laboratory for testing a new strategy which the INS says will "remove the magnet of jobs," in the words of District Director Mark Reed.

Last December, the INS subpoenaed the personnel records for every employee of every meatpacking plant in the state - a total of about 40,000 workers. Then, INS agents compared the employment information they supplied - like the Social Security number given by Concepcion Vargas when she applied for her job - with the national Social Security database and other related records. Concentrating on forty plantswith a workforce of 24,310 people, they sifted out 4,762 names.

Then the INS sent lists of names to each company. To every worker, agents also mailed a letter requiring them to come in for an interview at the plant on a certain day. In Madison, 258 of the IBP plant's 1051 employees got the letters.

One of them was Manuel Flores.

Since 1992, Flores has been trying to relocate his family from a barrio named Paradise, in Tulancingo, Hidalgo, a town in central Mexico. There he was a truck driver, but his wages could only put rice, beans and milk on the table for his wife and four kids, and pay a little rent besides. "It just wasn't enough for us to live," he said.

Over the seven following years, he brought his family to live in Madison, returning to Hidalgo twice when he lost meatpacking jobs, each time coming back because conditions at home were even worse. Today the Flores family lives in an apartment carved out of an old house just off Madison's main street. The original living room, large and graceful and lined with windows, is reminiscent of a time when a comfortable middle-class white family still occupied the whole house. But two sofas draped with blankets, where children sleep at night, now crowd the room.

The Flores family has been divided for a long time, with some of the children living in Mexico while Manuel and his wife Lydia try to get established in Nebraska. Last year their five-year-old son Mario got sick in Hidalgo, before they could bring him to the U.S. Although they rushed back, "there was nothing we could do for him and he died. It really hurt me a lot," Lydia says.

At first Manuel worked in nearby Norfolk, at Beef America, using the papers belonging to a friend at IBP. "But eventually I got fired because they found out my papers were no good," he explains. "Then another friend told me he could get me other papers. So I paid him $200, and he gave me a birth certificate and a Social Security card, which I've been using ever since. Today they'd cost me about $1000."

At Beef America there were a lot of injuries, Flores recalls, because the lines ran so fast - about 1000 animals an hour. "I didn't like the treatment there either. The supervisors would shout obscenities at us to make us work faster, and they never trained me for any job."

As soon as he could, he got a job at IBP in Madison, where wages were a little higher.

Manuel's voice is flat, but his mouth starts trembling when he recalls what happened next. "In May, I got a letter from the migra, saying my papers were bad, calling me for an interview on the 19th. My supervisor came to me at work, and said I was on the list. There were a lot of people on it - even the supervisor herself. She wanted to know if I was going to continue working, and said I had ten days to fix my papers or leave. I told her if they couldn't help me, I'd work until the fifteenth. That was my last day at IBP."

Since quitting his meatpacking job, Flores has found a few days work, but not enough to pay the family's expenses. "I'm really scared," he says. "I was making $460 a week at IBP - $10.10/hour, working six days. We're paying $330 a month rent, our food bill is $160 a week, and I still have to send money home for my children and family there. We have nothing to fall back on. I feel really desperate. But I don't want to go back to Mexico - I don't know how we'll live there either.

"We weren't doing anything bad to anyone - I'm just trying to support my family. I don't want them to suffer, or my kids to live like this. But if I don't work with bad documents, how can I work? We can't get green cards [legal residence permits] - if we could, we would."

According to the INS, about a thousand of those who received the letters actually showed up for their interviews. Only 34 of them, however, actually lacked legal immigration papers and were deported. The remainder were able to show proper documents and were released.

The INS has declared the operation an initial success, estimating that those who failed to report for theirinterviews either quit because of normal turnover, or were undocumented and left their jobs rather than risk arrest. According to the Operation Vanguard plan, those undocumented workers will be prevented from migrating to another plant by dealing with the entire industry at one time. Meanwhile, repeated checks every 60 days will keep workers from returning to their old jobs.

This year Operation Vanguard will expand to plants in other states. According to Reed, requests are being made for personnel records for the rest of Iowa, as well as Kansas, Arkansas, Texas and Missouri.

It's not called Operation Vanguard for nothing. Nebraska meatpacking is a laboratory for an enforcement program which will be applied to every industry and area in the country where undocumented immigrants are concentrated. "We will clean up one industry and turn the magnet down a bit," Reed says, "and then go on to another industry, and another, and another. While this is a signal to employers to some degree, it's really a signal to workers who will go elsewhere and look for work."

"It's obvious why the INS started here," says Cecilia Olivarez Huerta, executive director of Nebraska's Mexican-American Commission. "It's an easy place for them. There are no immigrant rights groups here whatsoever. Our congressional delegation has nothing to say on immigrant-rights issues. Can you imagine what would have happened if they had started this program in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago?"

According to Mark Nemitz, president of Local 440 of the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Farmland pork plant in Denison, Iowa, dozens of local families left their homes during the week of the interviews. They camped out in the county park twelve miles outside of this small town, fearing the INS would pick them up for deportation.

In Madison, says Concepcion Vargas, the enforcement action hit hard at the local economy: "For days afterwards, there was no one drinking in the bars or shopping in the stores here - so many people didn't have paychecks. And there's no other work right now. It's not the corn season yet, and that's the worst work of all."

But Operation Vanguard's most serious effect may extend beyond its economic impact. In Omaha, activists have been organizing workers inside local non-union plants to challenge conditions. They say the leaders of that effort were wiped out by the INS.

Sergio Sosa, a Guatemalan ex-priest and revolutionary turned urban community organizer, heads a project sponsored by Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation, called Omaha Together One Community. Since last fall, Sosa has been patiently meeting with packinghouse workers, drawing out tales of horrifying conditions in the plants, looking for cultural threads to unify an unorganized and fearful workforce.

"To organize in this situation we need the natural leaders among the workers themselves," Sosa says. "So we've been trying to find them, and slowly put together a committee with a base in the plants, that can begin to organize collective actions at work to change conditions."

Months of steady organizing led this spring to the formation of a group, meeting regularly and committed to building that base. In early May those meetings brought together 22 in-plant leaders. But only two came to the meeting following Operation Vanguard's Omaha debut.

Sosa is understandably bitter. "The companies already have a full arsenal of tactics they use against us," he explains. "They buy people off when they see someone begin to organize. They threaten workers with immigration raids. They fire people and even bring in workers from the border in a crisis. Operation Vanguard gave the companies a big gift - almost all our leaders had to find jobs elsewhere."

Sosa sees undocumented workers as more than just vulnerable victims of exploitation - as potential organizers and leaders. His project is supported by the parish priest in Omaha's growing Latino barrio, Father Damien Zuerlein. Other priests, like Madison's Stanley Kasun, also belong to this network ofactivists. "We're trying to apply the ideas of liberation theology, of the preferential option for the poor, to the situation of the Latino community in the meatpacking plants," Kasun explains.

Zuerlein began the organizing effort with workers at Greater Omaha Packing Co. three years ago. "We were able to get a group of 70 workers together very quickly, because the conditions in the plant were so bad," he explains. "People weren't getting bathroom breaks, and even urinated in their clothes on the line. The line speed was tremendous, and lots of workers showed symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. But management sent spies into our group, and after a meeting with the plant manager, everyone involved in the effort was fired. We concluded that we needed to root our organizing deeper in the plant, and really identify and train leaders willing to make a commitment."

In meatpacking plants, the immigrant Latino workforce consists of a mixture of documented and undocumented workers, often in the same families, who all form part of a broad network of relationships. Zuerlein's and Sosa's strategy calls for using those networks to organize first outside the plant, setting up soccer teams to teach people the value of working together. "If people learn how to get organized there, they can do the same thing in a work situation," Zuerlein says.

"I don't think it's impossible to organize the undocumented," he declares. "They're often forced to be transient people, so organizing has to go on constantly. But they have some tremendous talent, and they're very courageous, creating a life out of absolutely nothing."

The INS denies, however, that Operation Vanguard or its new policy of concentrating immigration law enforcement in the workplace, is directed against worker organizing. "I would think unions would embrace this," Reed exclaims. "Employers love illegal aliens - they're reliable, malleable, they work as long as the employer wants, and they never complain about anything."

But the history of the enforcement actions which culminated in Operation Vanguard, as well as a new web of relations between the INS and other government agencies, indicate that the program inevitably undermines organizing rights.

Reed and other INS authorities say the Nebraska experiment was preceded by a new wave of actions enforcing employer sanctions, that section of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act which prohibits the employment of undocumented workers. One of the largest took place in Washington state in February, when the INS checked the I-9 employment verification forms for workers in 13 Yakima Valley apple packing sheds. Agents compared these forms, which establish every worker's legal residency, with Social Security records. They then gave lists totaling 1700 people to the bosses, and told them to fire the workers for lack of proper documents.

For three years those same sheds have been the focus of an industry-wide organizing drive by the Teamsters Union. According to lead organizer Lorraine Scheer, the mass firings swept up many rank-and-file leaders, and created an atmosphere of terror inside the sheds, intimidating documented and undocumented alike. The I-9 firings came on the heels of widespread employer threats of immigration raids, some of which led to charges against companies by the National Labor Relations Board. While the shed owners complained vociferously that the I-9 check hurt production, to many workers it looked as though the migra and the companies were in league against them.

Workplace enforcement actions have spread around the country. In the San Francisco Bay Area, two major janitorial contractors were targeted, and about 500 members of Service Employees Local 1877 lost their jobs. The local is a key to the international union's strategy for negotiating the first master national janitorial contract in the year 2000. The I-9 checks removed many leaders the union relied on for that campaign.

The INS workplace enforcement program depends heavily on a new set of relationships with other government agencies, especially the Social Security Administration. I-9 checks and Operation Vanguard's lists can only come from free access to the Social Security database. The INS sees that database, not as a means for ensuring that workers get the disability and pension benefits for which they've contributed, but as an immigration enforcement tool. "Social Security is the backbone," Reed says. "It's the major index. But we're going into the data mining business. If a person is in jail, on welfare, or owns property, we can use all that information to tell who is who."

Under prodding from the INS, the Social Security Administration itself has taken the initiative on immigration enforcement. Across the country, it is sending lists to employers of workers whose numbers don't match their database. Wholesale firings often result, as employers assume the workers listed are undocumented. Some SSA personnel have even encouraged those terminations.

The INS has developed other relations as well. An agreement with the Department of Labor, for instance, requires inspectors looking for violations of labor standards like minimum wage and overtime laws to also thumb through the I-9 forms, looking for discrepancies which could lead to deportations.

While emphasizing partnership with employers, Operation Vanguard has almost no role for unions in protecting workers. An INS handout reassures companies that "our intention, of course, is not to harm operations but work in partnership to help you maintain a stable, legal workforce." An INS Backgrounder states the agency will build "a partnership with top managers in the meat packing/processing industry." Gerald Heinauer, another INS district director, told UFCW that cooperating employers "will no longer be subject to unannounced operations during which large numbers of workers are abruptly removed."

But when the UFCW asked the INS to provide the same lists to the union it was giving to employers under union contract, the INS balked. "The union's relationship is with the employer," Reed says, "and the employer decides what information to share. The union has no responsibility here. In those incidents where the employer wants a union presence, we can oblige." According to union attorney Anna Avendaņo, the union was specifically excluded by INS enforcement chief Michael Pearson from meetings with the companies to discuss the program's implementation.

Jill Keshen, in the UFCW's communications department, says the operation "criminalizes workers, when the real criminals are the corporations." The union condemns what it calls selective enforcement in only one industry - meatpacking - and one state - Nebraska, and criticizes the operation's impact on legal residents. "It is disruptive to the community and to the industry," Avendaņo says, adding that "union-busting employers can use this INS strategy to chill organizing campaigns. The employer becomes an agent of the government in interrogating workers, which gives them tremendous power."

She asserts that Operation Vanguard won't do anything to improve conditions or wages in the plants, and says that making undocumented workers more vulnerable will only make it more difficult for them to file complaints against violations of labor standards. "We want targeted enforcement of workplace protection laws instead," she says.

The union is cooperating with other critics of Operation Vanguard, like attorney Milo Mumgaard of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest. Mumgaard is collecting cases of discrimination caused by the operation, and is preparing the ground for a legal suit against its impact.

But the UFCW hasn't yet made a formal demand that Operation Vanguard cease. And local union leaders are divided about it, reflecting deep conflicts over how to deal with the meatpacking industry itself, and its increasing dependence on immigrant workers.

Angelo Fili, Greater Omaha's vice-president for production, says his plant has always relied on immigrants, since it opened in 1920. "Meatpacking was always anentry port for immigrants into the country and the economy," he declares.

But the immigration wave which originally staffed meatpacking plants at the turn of the century was largely European. European immigrants didn't face the elaborate web of restrictive laws which today criminalize immigration that was perfectly legal a hundred years ago.

That earlier wave of immigrants went to work in meatpacking plants that were mostly located in large Midwest cities. In the 1930s and 40s, the United Packinghouse Workers, part of the Congress for Industrial Organizations, organized the critical percentage of the workforce it needed to give it leverage in the industry. It relied on a tradition of rank-and-file democracy, industrial unionism and militant struggle against employers. Master contracts covering both pork and beef processors set a wage standard above most manufacturing workers, even for meatpackers that had their own individual agreements, or no agreement at all.

The industry was vastly restructured in the last two decades, however. Even though it continues to represent 60% of the meatpacking workforce, the power of the union to set that standard was eroded drastically. Lourdes Gouveia, a sociology professor at University of Nebraska, credits the growth of IBP in creating a fundamentally different industry. IBP developed boxed beef in the 1970s. Prior to that, animals were slaughtered in urban packinghouses by the then-giants Armour, Swift, Wilson, Cudahy and others. Quarters of meat were then shipped to markets, where skilled butchers cut them into pieces for consumers.

First in pork, and then in beef, new companies changed that system drastically. After slaughter, animals are now cut apart on fast-moving disassembly lines, where an individual worker might cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Boxes of meat sliced into consumer-sized chunks are then shipped to market. Speeds in the plant increased enormously, and as workers repeated the same motions over and over again, injury rates skyrocketed as well.

The rising giants of the restructured industry, led by IBP, built new plants outside the cities. "IBP engineered the move to rural communities," Gouveia says. "They worked out the new system in the plants, and pioneered cost-cutting by attacking organized labor."

In the 1980s strikes rocked meatpacking, as workers sought to hold onto the wage levels the master agreements had established. Strikes against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, IBP in Dakota City, Nebraska, and John Morrell in Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were just a few famous battles among many long, intensely bitter conflicts..

A new international union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was created in which the Packinghouse Workers merged first with retail butchers in the Amalgamated Meatcutters, and then with store clerks in the Retail Clerks. In the first half of the 1980s, the international union granted mid-term contract concessions to many companies. Packers competed fiercely to see who could get the best deal. In the race to lower standards, 30 plants closed between 1980 and 1982 alone, and the following year another 29 threatened to do so.

From the wreckage emerged a new group of meat monopolies - IBP, ConAgra, Cargill and Smithfield, which account for 80% of all cattle slaughtered in the country, and nearly the same percentage of hogs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average beef and pork slaughter wages are now $9.03 and $9.01/hour respectively. The average hourly wage in manufacturing, a dollar an hour below meatpacking in 1979, is now $13.17.

According to Mark Nemitz of UFCW Local 440 at Farmland in Denison, Iowa, union wages declined $1.54 to $9.00/hour in 1982. The base rate in the plant today is $9.70, and will rise to $10.00 this year. "When we gave them the cut in 1982, the company had 4 plants," he explains. Now Farmland has three beef plants, 11 pork plants, and a catfish processing operation. "There was a waiting list to get a job here when I started in 1981,and I waited six months," he adds. "Now for the last five years there's been a labor shortage because of the low wages. The human relations director tells me that they're operating with 100 people less than they need."

Bill Buckholz, who heads the UFCW local at the Morrell pork plant in Sioux City, the world's largest, is a bitter critic of the international, and active in a rank-and-file movement called Research Education Advocacy People, headed by former packinghouse division director Lewie Anderson. "In 1983 our base was $11.42. Now it's $10.00, and we're still the highest-paying packer here," he says.

As the meatpackers have sought to fill the plants while keeping wages from rising, the percentage of immigrant workers has climbed. "That was another IBP innovation," Gouveia explains. "In the small towns where they located, they've created a whole new labor force, and the rest of the industry has followed."

A 1989 memo to plant managers from Raoul Baxter, corporate human relations director of competing John Morrell & Co., asks: "With the realistic labor shortage and turnover we are facing, perhaps we could do a much better job than IBP of slowly recruiting Mexican Americans of high quality to work in Sioux City and Sioux Falls." He goes on to suggest paying for "housing, pay advances, moving expenses or whatever."

Companies have sent recruiting teams to Los Angeles and other established immigrant communities. They've placed advertisements on radio stations along the Mexican border, and even sent busses to pick up recruits as they cross over. "They're bringing people from El Paso, Durango, Zacatecas and Chihuahua," says Roberto Ceja, a worker at Nebraska Beef's Omaha plant. "The companies are sending people out everywhere offering jobs. They're even advertising on TV."

According to a study by the General Accounting Office, the percentage of minorities living in key Nebraska rural counties, where meatpacking has relocated, rose from 6% in 1980 to 9.5% today, and in Iowa, from 3.1% to 5%. In the schools in those same Nebraska counties, the number of limited-English proficiency students speaking Spanish rose from 5,814 in 1986/7 to 14.194 ten years later, with a similar increase in Iowa. Immigrant communities from southeast Asia, about a third the size of Nebraska's Mexican communities, are growing at a similar pace.

Community tensions have been created by these changing demographics, as new immigrant communities grow in small towns where white people before were almost the entire population. And according to the INS, those tensions led to the creation of Operation Vanguard.

A year ago, a delegation of Nebraska law enforcement officers, accompanied by the state's congressional delegation, called on INS Director Doris Meissner in Washington to complain about the high crime rate they attributed to new immigrants. As a result, the GAO conducted a study of the impact of immigration on rural Nebraska and Iowa communities.

"The community was frustrated about the unabated flow of illegal immigration," Reed says. "We were challenged to do a better job in Nebraska. If we showed we could impact the meatpacking industry, we knew we could show a new way of dealing with the illegal alien problem."

Even Buckholz is swayed by the argument. "That's the law and they're breaking it," he says, referring to undocumented workers. On the one hand, he blames the companies for bringing the workers as a source of cheap labor. But he also thinks their communities are the source of new levels of crime and violence. "I understand why people come here - they're from poverty-stricken places," he says. "I've gone to their homes to help when they get injured, and I see 15 people living in a room with no furniture, just a few blankets. That's how people get started here."

Both Buckholz' and Nemitz' locals have tried to organize non-union plants in their communities. In both cases, they say, threats of immigration raids turned the tide against the union at the last moment, before people were due to vote in representation elections. They both also continually sign up new workers as they come into the union plants, since Nebraska and Iowa are right-to-work states where union membership is not compulsory. The local at Morrell in Sioux City has a 95% membership rate, and Farmland in Denison is about the same. Both locals sign up documented and undocumented workers alike, with no distinction. Meetings and documents are translated into Spanish, and even other languages where necessary.

Buckholz believes that things won't change until the wages go up. "If we'd have some fights in the organized plants, we could get the wages here to where they should be, and put pressure on the rest of the industry. Then they'd hire fewer undocumented and create a stable workforce." In his plant 70% of the workers are immigrants, documented and undocumented mixed together. That's the workforce that would have to get organized and make the fight, if the union hopes to change conditions.

"Wages have to be tackled industry-wide," Nemitz agrees. "And if we want to organize, I think we have to look at what Father Damien is doing. We need community support, and trust is a big factor. Operation Vanguard wants to drive the undocumented out of meatpacking, but I think people will still be there. They're very determined. It will just drive people further underground, and make it harder for them to organize. Some say they want to see all the Hispanics go, but to me that's racist. It won't and shouldn't happen. People have the right to work wherever they want, and to be protected like everyone else. Maybe if people were legalized, or sanctions ended, it would make people less vulnerable."

That's not a perspective the INS or the industry share. In fact, despite quarrelling in public over lost production due to Operation Vanguard, both the INS and the meatpackers seem to agree on a possible long-term solution to the industry's labor supply problems. They both advocate a guestworker program, in which workers would be hired outside the U.S., and then brought to their jobs as contract laborers.

For over three decades until 1964 the U.S. had such a program in agriculture, the bracero program. Sherry Edwards of the American Meat Institute says that a new guestworker program would have to go beyond that, however. "We need permanent workers, not seasonal laborers," she says.

"We have a vast labor shortage," declares Greater Omaha Packing's Angelo Fili. "I think a guestworker program would be good for the industry and good for the country."

So does Mark Reed. In fact, the INS district director says one purpose of Operation Vanguard is forcing a political dialogue, in which Congress assures industries dependent on immigrant workers an ample labor supply. "It's time for a gut check," he declares. "That's where we're going. We depend on foreign labor, and we have to face the question -- are we prepared to bring in workers lawfully? How can we get unauthorized workers back into the workforce in a legal way? If we don't have illegal immigration anymore, we'll have the political support for guestworker. People have talked about it for years, but we never had to really deal with it until Operation Vanguard."

It's not just Reed's idea. "This has been coordinated with headquarters all the way. I met with Meissner and the congressional delegation. She's encouraging more internal enforcement operations. She said, 'I want endgames.' That's what this is."

Opposition from unions and the Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander communities to guestworker programs stems, not just from a desire to prevent an oversupply of labor, and therefore falling wages, but from the historical record of contract labor, especially the bracero program. While guaranteed labor rights on paper, guestworkers depend on the continuation of a job to remain in the country. Employers therefore not only have the power to fire workers who agitate and organize, but in effect to deport them as well.

A guestworker program almost made it onto the floor of Congress last session, and Operation Vanguard may well win it new supporters. Nebraska's Republican delegation is already responding to the meatpacking industry's outcry over lost production and labor shortages caused by Operation Vanguard, setting up a series of invitation-only meetings between INS and industry representatives.

"The disruption from Operation Vanguard is certainly fuel for the political fire supporting guestworker," Avendaņo says. "We know the employers really want this. It's a very serious and immediate threat."

Father Damien Zuerlein goes even further. "I'm very suspicious about the source of Operation Vanguard," he says. "I wonder if the meatpackers aren't really behind it after all. If packers got a guestworker program, it would really destroy the present workforce," he concludes.

Perhaps it's the final irony of Operation Vanguard that the INS now discusses openly what critics of U.S. immigration policy have said for years has been its real mission - providing an ample labor supply. "It's all become an issue of the price of labor," Gouveia says, "how it will be regulated, and how much it will cost employers."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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