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August 9, 2019
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On Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division, raided seven meat processing facilities scattered across six small towns near Jackson, Mississippi. The raids led to the arrest of 680 people and the seizure of documents that may (may not) lead to criminal action against the employers. Five different companies were targeted in the raids, but there was little information about the investigation HSI had conducted, or who, beyond the workers, might face prosecution.
There are a few different facets to consider about this case, which I break down below. The first, is simply what might happen to the people arrested.
When the raids occurred, anyone who was not able to show proof they were authorized to work in the United States was transported to a National Guard base in Rankin County to be further processed. Of the 680 people detained in this manner, 303 were released by late Wednesday night. Some were parents, who may still face removal proceedings, but were released for the time being with ankle monitors. Others may have been able to demonstrate that they were authorized to work in the U.S. The individual situations will vary, of course, but of the 300 people released, most will face further proceedings before an immigration judge. They are not by any stretch “free.”
Those who were not released were placed in ICE detention at the LaSalle Processing Facility in Jena, Louisiana. This facility is owned by the GEO Group, and represents a part of the dramatic expansion of detention capacity in the state of Louisiana, which now has the third largest population of ICE detainees in the country, behind only Texas and California. Mississippi has also witnessed a significant expansion of detention capacity in recent months. Immigration courts in this part of the country are notorious for deciding against immigrants - for example, a recent profile of a judge in nearby Oakmont, LA showed that she had decided against every asylum case she had heard. Every. One (200 cases over a five year period).
All of which is to say, that the people detained here, even if they are lucky enough to find representation, face an uphill battle to get heard in a partial setting. For those who have already been issued removal orders, deportation is almost certain. When ICE raided a meat-packing plant in Morristown, Tennessee in April of 2018, 96 people were detained. By February of 2019, six were known to have been deported, another twelve had left “voluntarily” - meaning they agreed to be deported rather than face more time in detention. About half had been paroled out, awaiting further determination of their cases. It is impossible to say at this point if the numbers from the Mississippi raid will approximate these proportions.
Meat packing plants rely heavily on immigrants and unauthorized workers. This reliance has grown over time as shifts in the structure of the business have pressed the bottom lines of companies. Once a good-paying union job, meat packing has become a low wage and very dangerous position. Back in 2005 the situation was so bad that Human Rights Watch issued a report that documented how working conditions in the meatpacking industry constituted violations of human rights.
Constant fear and risk is another feature of meat and poultry labor. Meatpacking work has extraordinarily high rates of injury. Workers injured on the job may then face dismissal. Workers risk losing their jobs when they exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively in an attempt to improve working conditions. And immigrant workers-an increasing percentage of the workforce in the industry-are particularly at risk. Language difficulties often prevent them from being aware of their rights under the law and of specific hazards in their work. Immigrant workers who are undocumented, as many are, risk deportation if they seek to organize and to improve conditions...
Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers' efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They crush workers' self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the perceived vulnerability of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work sites. These are not occasional lapses by employers paying insufficient attention to modern human resources management policies. These are systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment.
Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones in 2011 asked, “What would make a company steadily increase pressure on its workers to the point of endangering them, even as wages flatline?” His answer:
The surface answer is, of course, because they can. After the unions evaporated, the meatpacking workforce became extremely vulnerable. By the '90s, meatpacking had become such an awful job that native-born Americans abandoned the industry as quickly as they could. Undocumented workers from Mexico and points south, fleeing agrarian decline in those regions, filled the void. Unprotected by unions, one brush with authority away from deportation, undocumented workers are easy targets for the predatory practices of powerful employers...
But there are deeper forces than naked power on display. Corporate profit strategy shifted in the wake of the 1970s-era stagflation crisis—in a way that transformed not just meatpacking but also the broader business landscape. Companies could no longer assume they had the power to raise prices to burnish the bottom line. Wage inflation, and the fear of it, convinced them that holding prices down was the better idea. Profit would be eked out by selling ever greater volumes of stuff—and by holding costs, including labor costs, to a bare minimum.
Of course, unions didn’t simply “evaporate.” They were undercut by company relocation and steady attacks on collective bargaining. This is why the jobs became miserable. Some portion of the workforce is still unionized - and, at least one strategy for impacting wage and other abuse in the industry is reigniting unionization. That said, the current situation for workers is well put: They are expected to work at ever increasing speeds, doing very dangerous work, and are paid very low wages, with little recourse.
As bad as the overall picture of the industry is, conditions get even more complicated. The work force is divided into two tiers. Among the workers who butcher and package, immigrants make up about 30% of the workforce nationally - a majority in some areas. This is very dangerous work and underpaid. However, the more dangerous jobs are in the “third shift” where people are brought in to clean the blades and belts, under pressure to finish quickly so the plants can be inspected to reopen for a new day of slaughter. In many meat-packing plants, the “third shift” is almost entirely immigrant workers, many unauthorized. Companies often outsource these cleaning crews from third party contractors - and then use this contractual relationship as a shield to avoid paying worker compensation when injuries, serious injuries, happen. How serious? One cleaning company, Packers, had a dismemberment rate of 9.4 amputations per 10,000 workers in 2015; five times the overall manufacturing average that year.
In December of 2017 Bloomberg did an extensive report on conditions in this third shift. Among the stories discussed, one really stood out to me:
In 2013, Hugo Avalos-Chanon, 41, was cleaning a hamburger blender at Interstate Meat Distributors Inc. in Clackamas, Ore., when, investigators believe, his hose got caught in the machine’s paddles and pulled him in. His widow in Mexico is suing Interstate for negligence and wrongful death, claiming the night shift was a veritable death trap. There were no safety guards on dangerous machines, and workers were required to clean the equipment while it was running, according to court filings. Based on pretrial testimony, a Clackamas County judge is letting the widow seek punitive damages at trial.
Interstate did not respond to questions for this story. In legal filings, the company acknowledges safety problems but says Avalos-Chanon’s employer, and hence the company responsible for his safety, was the sanitation contractor DCS Sanitation Management Inc. Interstate claims it paid DCS, which has since been purchased by Packers, a flat fee to assume full responsibility for the night shift. Oregon OSHA fined DCS $6,300 after Avalos-Chanon’s death.
“DCS managers knew it was possible to clean the machines without turning them on,” Interstate argues in a court filing, in a rare burst of industry candor, “but they believed doing so would not make financial sense.”
Of those arrested on Wednesday, we don’t know which jobs they were each doing, of course. But we can safely say, whatever the job, it was dangerous and grossly underpaid. We can also say that the companies know this, and will defend their practices as necessary for maintaining the bottom line (whatever boiler plate they throw to the media about safety being a concern). We also know that there will be no repercussions for the companies themselves, even if a manager or two get fired. Tyson Foods was busted back in 2001 for actually smuggling unauthorized workers into the country from Mexico. It is still the largest meat packing company in the country.
The war on immigrants is a war on working people in this country. This is important. For all the talk of the sanctity of borders and the other nationalistic, bombastic B.S. that comes out of the mouth of our president and other leaders of the anti-immigrant crowd, what is happening is a gutting of the capacity of workers to reorganize and stand united against the austerity forced on them by capital. Immigrants are not the reason jobs like meatpacking in this country have been de-unionized and underpaid. The operations of capital are the reason - and the government that defends the capitalists. It has happened over and over again. The workers will be detained and many will be deported. The owners will, at most, pay a fine that is a fraction of what they earn exploiting vulnerable working people. The beat goes on.
There is not a flag large enough to hide this exploitative system.
UPDATE: Action alert from Detention Watch Network
This week our community in Mississippi was attacked when 680 community members were kidnapped from their workplace and caged. As DWN members are reaching out, we'd like to share the ongoing response efforts that we can all plug in to. DWN member, Southeast Immigrant Rights Network (SEIRN), is on the ground and, alongside several southeast grassroots organizations and groups, working alongside the local community and families affected. Following their lead, here are current ways you can support:
- For needed volunteer capacity & resources, fill out this form to identify how you can help and SEIRN will follow-up with more info.
- Circulate the hotline for MS community members affected: (978) 993-3300
- Fundraising efforts, including a fund for families, are currently being coordinated - follow SEIRN for updates or make a direct contribution to SEIRN here.
- Media inquiries can be submitted here. DWN's press statement can be found here.
Additionally, there are several hunger strikes inside immigration jails happening at the moment, including several week-long strikes led by individuals detained in El Paso Processing Center (TX) and at Krome (FL). Since beginning their hunger strikes, strikers have been retaliated against in various ways. Watch this video for more information.
Take action now to demand their release:
- Call your Member of Congress at 202-224-3121 & 202-225-3121
- Sign the petition: bit.ly/2Y9evIQ
For updates, follow Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee and AVID in the Chihuahuan Desert (@avid_chihuahuan) on Twitter.