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January 2003, Volume 9, Number 1

Midwest: Migrant Deaths

In October 2002, 11 people, seven men and four women, were found dead in rail cars in Denison, Iowa, population 7,500. The train had originated in Matamoros, Mexico, and sat in Oklahoma several months before being sent to Iowa to load with grain. Coyotes got the migrants over the Rio Grande on rafts, and put some of them in hopper cars that were sealed tightly and sent to Houston, where other smugglers were waiting to open them; the car sent to Oklahoma was not opened, and the migrants died.

Mexican police in January 2003 arrested a man who they said was part of the smuggling operation. The tragedy may encourage Mexico's Congress to approve a bill that increases the maximum prison term for human smuggling from 12 to 25 years.

The Latino population in the Midwest almost doubled in the 1990s to three million. Many Latino residents in the Midwest are immigrants who moved from seasonal farm jobs in California to year-round meatpacking jobs in Iowa. Once anchor settlements have been established, many immigrants head directly to the Midwest, where they often reverse population decline-40 percent of Iowa's cities lost population in the 1990s.

The INS says that it is stopping fewer vans and trucks carrying unauthorized immigrants in Nebraska and Iowa than three years ago. As of September 30, 2002, agents processed 78 cars in the two states with 1,013 illegal immigrants on board. In 2002, the INS stopped 164 cars with 2,083 illegal immigrants. Almost all stops were made on Interstate 80.

Denison's population rose 11 percent in the 1990s -- propelled almost entirely by immigrants drawn by the three meat-processing plants. According to the Census, about 17 percent of Denison's residents are Hispanic, but almost half of the kindergarten pupils are Hispanic.

There is often a gap between local employers and business leaders, who assert that the immigrants are needed to keep local businesses viable, and other residents, who resent the changes due to immigration. Older residents in Denison say the Latino influx began in 1981, when the biggest packinghouse cut wages for meatpacking; today, half of the meatpacking work force in the Denison area are immigrants, earning at least $9 an hour. A statewide 2001 poll by the Des Moines Register found 54 percent of respondents are opposed to any increase in immigration.

Ohio. In October 2002, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Hispanics who alleged they were victims of racial profiling by the Ohio Highway Patrol can sue the troopers who took their green cards for four days. In 1966, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee joined a suit alleging that the Ohio Highway Patrol targeted Hispanics to check their immigration status; the Ohio Highway Patrol admitted that it questioned several thousand Hispanics about their immigration status, and destroyed more than 100 green cards.

Wisconsin. Agrilink Foods in Green Bay in November 2002 abandoned plans to build a 24,000-square-foot, 98-employee dorm for $600,000 to house Mexican workers in the area without their families. Agrilink tried to win over local residents, saying "The benefit to the community is we're keeping a viable business open with this work force," but most local residents objected.

Wisconsin has 6,000 migrant workers in about 120 camps, according to Mateo Cadena, director of the Bureau of Migrant Services for the Department of Workforce Development. Cadena said the Agrilink dorm would have been "state of the art" for migrant centers.

Many cities are questioning the benefits of meatpacking operations, in part because of the migrant workers they attract. Wisconsin Rapids officials visited another city's meatpacking plant, where the 350 employees included migrants from Mexico.

Texas. The El Paso City Council transferred the operation of the Border Agricultural Workers Center to the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project. The 8,000-square-foot building, worth about $984,000 and located at 201 E. Ninth, has provided a place for Mexican workers headed to New Mexico fields to sleep and obtain meals and other services since 1995; the workers want to remain in El Paso so they do not have to wait in line to cross the bridge from Mexico.

Bartschi-Fobro, a Swiss manufacturer, built a $90,000 machine to dig berry plants out of the ground, eliminating the need for a dozen seasonal workers. The farmer grows shrubs, ornamentals and trees in addition to berries, shipping much of them to Midwestern retailers.

Daniel Borunda, "Sin Fronteras gets ag center," El Paso Times, January 3, 2003. Laura Gunderson, "Campo Azul idea raises serious policy questions," Oregonian, January 2, 2003. Stephanie Simon, "Latinos Take Root in Midwest," Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2002. William Petroski, "Routes down, but buses keep rolling in Iowa," De Moines Register, October 24, 2002. Cindy Gonzalez, "A risky trek worth the rewards," Omaha World-Herald, October 21, 2002.

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