July 1996, Volume 2, Number 3
Latinos Surge in Midwest
Many observers predict that the sharpest US debates over
immigration and integration will shift in the 1990s from Western
states such as California and southern states such as Florida to
midwestern states such as Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. There are an
increasing number of conflicts between immigrants and natives in
midwestern towns and cities, some of which have seen their Hispanic
populations rise by 200 to 500 percent since 1990.
The growth of the Hispanic population has been termed the
"browning" of the Midwest. Between 1980 and 1992, the number of
Hispanics in 10 midwestern states - Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska -
climbed from 1.2 million to 1.8 million--including about 1 million
Hispanics in Illinois. Over the same period, the white population in
these states declined by 400,000.
Given their small populations, rural towns can be transformed
almost overnight by immigration, leading to issues that range from an
inability to communicate with public authorities to non-English
speaking children in school.
Lexington, Nebraska went from a population that was five percent
Latino in the 1990 Census to nearly 45 percent Latino in 1994, on a
Census re-check. The growth of the Latino population is attributed to
IBP, a meat packer that employs 2,500 workers, and has a $58 million
annual payroll, in a town of 9,000.
The transformation of Lexington has drawn mixed reviews. On the
one hand, business, especially in the downtown area, is up. However,
some established residents complain that Spanish-speaking meatpackers
and their families drive old cars without licenses and insurance, and
that the needs of their children lower the quality of the schools.
The crime rate in Lexington has doubled to 72 crimes per 1,000
residents since 1990. According to one Nebraska police chief, "where
you have the meatpacking plants, you have an immigration of
Hispanics, and you are seeing an increase of gangs." There were
29,665 Nebraska residents of Mexican descent in the 1990 Census, and
an estimated 38,000 in 1996.
Many meat packing companies recruit workers in California, Texas,
and sometimes in Mexico. IBP, the world's largest processor of beef
and pork, says that "because of job growth and low unemployment
rates, we sometimes have to recruit outside our plant communities to
supplement the local applicant flow."
An INS agent in 1995 estimated that almost 25 percent of the
workers in 222 meatpacking plants in Nebraska and Iowa were illegally
in the US. In FY95, INS agents in Nebraska and Iowa arrested 704
people on illegal immigration charges, nearly double the 363 arrests
the office logged in FY94. Some of those apprehended reported that
they paid $400 each to be transported from the border to Chicago.
In May 1996, IBP agreed to submit the A-numbers of all newly hired
non-US citizens at its 22 US plants that employ 30,000, to INS
computers to verify the right of non-US citizens to work in the US.
According to meatpackers, there is very high turnover among 10 to 30
percent of the work force, so that a plant with 500 employees may
issue 1,000 to 1,200 W-2 statements at the end of the year.
Some critics of the meatpacking industry argue that the companies
encourage high turnover to keep most workers at the low end of the
wage scale. The companies counter that each worker who leaves
represents an investment loss in training and experience.
Monfort, a division of ConAgra, also agreed to participate in the
voluntary INS employee verification program (ConAgra in May 1996
announced that it would close up to 29 of its 245 food processing
plants, and lay off 6,500 of its 90,000 workers). State and local
police detect many illegal aliens as they cross the major east-west
US highway, Interstate 80. Police have stopped calling the INS to
report that they had detected illegal aliens during traffic stops
because the INS did not respond; instead, most non-criminal illegal
aliens detected by police are released.
On May 23, 1996, the INS announced that IBP of Dakota City,
Nebraska; Monfort Inc. of Greeley, Colorado; Excel Corp. of Wichita,
Kansas; and BeefAmerica of Omaha, Nebraska agreed to participate in
the INS's voluntary Employment Verification Pilot (EVP) which helps
employers determine whether their non-citizen employees are legally
authorized to work in the United States. The four meatpackers employ
56,000 workers at 48 sites in ten states and represent about 80
percent of the industry.
After hiring a new employee, employers participating in EVP send
the A-numbers and other information to an INS database via modem, and
the INS verifies the alien's right to work. In California, an EVP
arrangement with 234 employers who have 80,000 employees in Santa Ana
and City of Industry, including Disneyland, found that about 26
percent of all newly-hired workers presented false documents to
employers even though they knew that the INS would be checking their
These 234 California employers checked on the status of 11,500
non-US citizens over seven months, and found that 2,948 were not
legally authorized to work. In a midwestern meatpacking experiment,
27 percent of the non-US citizens hired were found to have presented
It may be that more than one in four workers presented false
documents, since employers do not check on persons who assert that
they are US citizens. The INS does not seek to apprehend aliens who
are denied work, under the theory that inability to work in the US is
enough of a deterrent.
The mayor of Sioux City, Iowa went to Washington DC in May 1996 to
lobby for an INS office in the city--the city wants INS agents so
that, when police arrest unauthorized aliens, the INS can deport
The Excel Corporation, a beef processor in Kansas, agreed to a new
contract affecting about 2,300 hourly workers, mostly Hispanics, that
includes a 20-cent per hour wage increase. The 13-month contract also
includes a stipulation that if an employee's immigrant status changes
and the employee notifies the company of the change, the employee
will not be disciplined for having earlier provided false
Beef prices hit ten-year lows in Spring 1996, a result of
overproduction and falling consumption. Farmers blame imports, which
were equivalent to two percent the nation's supply of 104 million
cattle in 1995. The farmers allege that meat packers increased their
profit margins. IBP reported record profits of $256 million in 1995.
IBP and three other meat packers account for 82 percent of US beef
production; the merger wave in US meatpacking was set off by a 1986
Supreme Court decision. US beef exports in 1995 were worth $3.3
billion. Annual per capita beef consumption peaked at 94 pounds in
1976, and in the mid-1990s is about 66 pounds per person per year.
Meatpacking wages fell sharply after peaking in 1980. In Iowa, the
average hourly earnings of meatpackers in 1981 was $11.33, 50 cents
less than the US average $11.83. Wallace Huffman of Iowa State
University noted that real meatpacking earnings fluctuated between
1963 and 1988, but were lower in 1988 than in 1963.
In 1993, the INS apprehended 55 Mexican workers at the 1,400
employee Monfort pork processing plant in Worthington, Minnesota. In
Albert Lea, Minnesota, city officials were not sure that they wanted
a meat packing plant employing 700 that was closed for a year
reopened. According to one official, "a meatpacking plant can butcher
public budgets as well as hogs." One study found that, despite new
payrolls, per capita income declines in some small communities that
attract meatpacking plants.
In central Ohio, the INS apprehended 42 unauthorized aliens in
March 1996 employed in foundries and meat packing plants. According
to the INS, "Columbus is becoming a mecca for illegal aliens." In
Marion county, Indiana, the county that includes the state capital of
Indianapolis, the Latino population--56 percent Mexican and 15
percent Puerto Rican-- doubled between 1990 and 1994 to 8,500.
On July 6, 1996, President Clinton announced changes in the system
for inspecting meat. Under the new system, meat and poultry
processors will use tests to check for salmonella and other bacteria
in meat, and the USDA set standards and spot check meat products with
tests rather than visual inspection.
Todd Purdum, "Meat inspections facing overhaul, first in 90
years," New York Times, July 7, 1996. Richard Brack, "Immigrants are
being drawn to Midwest," Des Moines Register, June 30, 1996.
"Seasonal workers gain; Iowa jobless rate steady," Associated Press,
June 21, 1996. Joe Davidson, "Huddled Masses Breathe Free Deep in
American Heartland," Wall Street Journal, June 17, 1996. "INS Kicks
Off First National Industry-wide Agreement to Ensure Workers are
Legal," US Newswire, May 31, 1996. Eric Schmitt, "US expands status
checks on job seekers," New York Times, May 24, 1996. James Brooke,
"Beef Prices Paid to Ranchers Are at 10-Year Low," New York Times,
May 12, 1996. Rainbow Rowell, " Immigration Agents Sought for Sioux
City," Omaha World Herald, May 11, 1996. Andrea Harter, "Where the
jobs are," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 28, 1996. John Taylor,
"Undocumented Workers Targeted By IBP-INS Plan," Omaha World Herald,
April 25, 1996. "Excel Contract with UFCW in Kansas Includes Terms
Aiding Immigrant Workers," Daily Labor Report, April 16, 1996. Scott
Park, "Ruffled Feathers," Dallas Morning News, April 21, 1996.
Kenneth Freed, " Melting Pot of Perceptions Hispanics, Whites in
Towns Both Clash and Commingle," Omaha World Herald, February 18,
1996. Mike Meyers, "New jobs, old problems," Star Tribune, December