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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

Midwest: Meat and Migrants

Agriprocessors. On May 12, 2008, immigration agents raided the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, arresting 389 mostly Guatemalan workers. Most of those arrested pleaded guilty to immigration crimes, were sentenced to five months in prison, and deported after serving their sentences.

Agriprocessors declared bankruptcy in November 2008, citing the raid for deteriorating finances. A trustee continued to operate the plant, but with a quarter of its previous 1,000-strong workforce. Agriprocessors' lenders, who are owed $26 million, rejected several bids for the plant as inadequate.

Some of the apprehended workers resisted deportation because, for example, they had US-born children. The result, according to Postville leaders, is "a humanitarian and economic disaster," as strapped churches attempt to help the jobless and those who cannot work as they fight deportation. In December 2008, Postville leaders seeking federal and state aid said: "Postville is a community in turmoil, a broken, hurting place" that is now worse off than it was before Agriprocessors arrived.

JBS-Swift. On December 12, 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided six Swift meatpacking plants, arresting 1,300 unauthorized workers. Journalist Jerry Kammer examined what happened to wages and benefits after the raids in four plants and concluded that they rose almost eight percent, based on Swift ads for workers.

Kammer noted that the plants did not shut after the raids and resumed full production within five months by hiring US-born workers and immigrants, including refugees. In addition to raising wages, Swift offered bonuses to current workers who recruited additional workers and began running buses from nearby communities to the plants to expand the pool of available workers. Wages and benefits of meatpacking workers are five to 10 percent of the retail cost of meat.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union disagreed that the employment of unauthorized workers depressed wages. It said: "immigrants from across the globe have helped strengthen the U.S. meatpacking industry by organizing around increased wages and improved industry standards." The UFCW said that only strikebreakers reduce wages in meatpacking.

Brazil-based JBS bought Swift in 2007; JBS is the world's largest meatpacker. The JBS-Swift flagship plant is in Greeley, Colorado in Weld county, which has a labor force of 83,000, including 3,000 in food manufacturing. Weld is also Colorado's major farming county, with farm sales of $1.1 billion in 2002.

The Weld county sheriff and district attorney in October 2008 searched the records of Amalia's Translation and Tax Services in Greeley to find individuals using false social security numbers. According to the district attorney, the average return among the 1,300 suspect tax returns seized showed $800 in taxes paid and, because of exemptions and earned income and child care tax credits, about $2,000 in refunds. The sheriff used tax return data to make arrests for identity theft; many of those arrested worked at JBS-Swift.

The ACLU sued the sheriff and district attorney, alleging invasion of privacy. A state judge on April 13, 2009 ordered a halt to the local enforcement actions, concluding that the sheriff did not have probable cause to seize the tax returns; the sheriff was told to return the tax returns or destroy them within a week. Before the use of the returns for identity theft enforcement was stopped, 62 people were arrested.

Poultry. Demand for chicken has fallen in the US and in the major export markets, China and Russia, pushing Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride into bankruptcy in December 2008 after losing $1 billion in 2008. Poultry processors, who often supply "independent farmers" with chicks and feed, have been canceling contracts, as US chicken production fell almost 10 percent in spring 2009 from year-earlier levels.

The National Contract Poultry Growers Association says that farmers provide the capital and labor needed to raise chickens, but that processors or integrators earn most of the profits from poultry processing. Pilgrim's Pride, which had 32 plants in early 2009, plans to close three more, plans to reduce the number of contract farmers from 5,000 to 4,000.

Dan Frosch, " Judge Halts Investigation Into ID Theft in Colorado," New York Times, April 14, 2009. Betsy Rubiner, "Iowa: What Happens When a Town Implodes," Time, January 28, 2009. Kammer, Jerry. 2009. The 2006 Swift Raids: Assessing the Impact of Immigration Enforcement Actions at Six Facilities. http://cis.org/2006SwiftRaids March.


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