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April 2010, Volume 16, Number 2

Midwest: Meat and Migrants

Swift-Grand Island. Meatpackers can change the composition of the population in the relatively small towns where they have plants by recruiting ethnic minority workers. After workplace raids between 2006 and 2008 removed Latino workers, many meatpackers turned to refugees from Africa. These legal immigrants introduced significant numbers of Muslims into some communities for the first time.

There have been conflicts between Hispanic and Somali workers in some meatpacking plants and cities, including the 2,500-employee Swift meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Nebraska. The Grand Island plant, one of six Swift plants raided by immigration agents in December 2006 that resulted in the removal of 1,200 workers, recruited Muslim refugees from Somalia living around Minneapolis to replace the Hispanics who were arrested. Brazilian-based JBS bought Swift in 2007, and raised wages to recruit replacement workers; starting wages were $12.25 an hour in 2010.

The Somalis demanded prayer breaks, which prompted Latinos to complain that Muslims received preferential treatment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August 2009 charged that JBS-Swift engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination at its Grand Island plant by firing Somalis who demanded accommodation for their religious beliefs. JBS-Swift countered that it established prayer rooms in its plants, and that the striking workers violated the union contract. Labor peace was restored in the plant, but Grand Island Mayor Margaret Hornady said that tensions remain high as the nonwhite share of students in local schools surpasses 50 percent.

Agriprocessors. On May 12, 2008, the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa was raided, and 389 of the 900 workers were arrested. Most of the Guatemalan workers arrested pleaded guilty to identity theft, served time in federal prison, and were deported.

There have been several books and films made about Postville in the wake of the immigration raid. The film, AbUSed: The Postville Raid (, argues the US government allowed workers to be exploited at Agriprocessors before returning them to poverty in the Guatemalan mountains.

Heroin. The Los Angeles Times reported that Mexican immigrants from 44,000-resident Xalisco in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit are spreading heroin in rural and agricultural areas. Their heroin, called black tar because it is sticky and dark, often replaces OxyContin, Percocet and other prescription pain killers that are used by some working-class whites.

The black tar comes from a place in Mexico where opium poppies have replaced sugar cane, providing plenty of workers. Instead of a top-down cartel, the ranchos of Xalisco operate independently and sometimes pay larger Mexican cartels to move heroin over the Mexico-US border.

Within the US, the Xalisco dealers make deliveries by car of small quantities of black-tar heroin to addicts. Competition between them holds down prices, which means that some addicts can maintain their habits for less than the cost of pain killers. OxyContin pills often cost $80 apiece, and most addicts take five or six a day. Black-tar heroin is stronger and costs less than $50 for a day's fix.

Mexican black-tar heroin may account for two-thirds of the heroin sold in the US, displacing Colombian heroin as US drug eradication efforts reduce opium production in Colombia. Most of the dealers are immigrants from Xalisco who earn $1,000 a week delivering small balloons of black-tar heroin to customers. The Los Angeles Times reported that Columbus, Ohio was a major distribution center for small towns and rural areas up to 500 miles away.

Sam Quinones, "A lethal business model targets Middle America," Los Angeles Times, February 14-16, 2010. Kate Linthicum, "A modern tale of meatpacking and immigrants," Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2010.

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