Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Raided meat plant shows reality of immigration, work

Cactus, Texas (Sperling's Best Places map)
President Trump won wide acclaim in rural areas with his campaign promises to crack down on immigration (illegal and otherwise), which he has done. The number of refugees allowed into the U.S. has dropped 70 percent since Trump took office, and he's phasing out the protected immigration status that has allowed Central Americans and Haitians to work here for decades. Trump argued that such actions would force employers to raise wages and hire more blue-collar American citizens. But what happened at a meatpacking plant rural Cactus, Texas (pop. 3,179), shows the market forces that drive employers to hire immigrants and refugees, and the real-life effects of immigration raids, Nick Miroff reports for The Washington Post.

Cactus has two major employers: a Valero oil refinery, which mostly employs whites, and a meatpacking plant owned by Brazilian conglomorate JBS USA, which has employed mostly immigrants and refugees since it opened in the late 1970s. At first it was mostly Vietnamese and Laotian workers, then legal refugees from Thailand, Malaysia, Somalia and Sudan. So many Somalis came that at one point Moore County had the fifth-highest Muslim population percentage in the U.S. Then the plant increasingly employed Latinos, some legal and some undocumented.

In 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Cactus plant as part of Operation Wagon Wheel, the largest workplace raid in U.S. history. ICE arrested nearly 1,300 workers overall and 300 workers in Cactus, almost 10 percent of the town's population. In spite of this sudden availability of jobs, white blue-collar workers did not step in to fill the gap. Today about half the floor workers are refugees and half are Latino, mostly immigrants. A Burmese meat-quality inspector said that in his 10 years at the Cactus plant, he had seen only two or three white workers cutting meat.

The problem is that, despite Trump's promises that reducing immigration will bring jobs to blue-collar workers, American-born citizens often don't want to do the kind of jobs that immigrants do, such as meat processing or farm labor. Meat work is so dangerous and off-putting that, in spite of the $17 hourly wage, health care and free English classes, there's a high turnover rate among new hires. Local American-born citizens say that they wouldn't work at the meatpacking plant unless it paid more than the $30 an hour they get paid at the refinery.

The U.S. meatpacking industry nationwide was having a hard time finding new workers even before Trump's anti-immigration policies, "having opened new plants in recent years to keep pace with soaring export demands and annual U.S. sales approaching $100 billion," Miroff reports. "Many of the industry’s processing plants are located in remote, ­rural areas of Midwestern states where employers in nearly every industry are struggling to find qualified workers, especially job candidates who will not test 'hot' for drugs."

Trump won 75 percent of the vote in Moore County. Some locals blame the meatpacking plant's workers for bringing "crime, drugs and civic decline," emboldened by Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric. "Their corner of northern Texas has been culturally and economically transformed, and they had never had an American president say the transformation was a bad thing," Miroff reports.

Some have welcomed the immigrants and refugees; Stan Corbin at First Baptist Church in nearby Dumas has made it his life's work to help them settle in, learn English, and navigate the paperwork of applying for citizenship. He doubts that the older immigrants will ever learn much English, but says their children are much more assimilated. "What we need is people willing to work hard, and people willing to work at JBS,” he told Miroff. "Their children will grow up to be engineers. But right now in our country, there is a great need for laborers."

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