In 1947, Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the crash of a plane carrying Mexican immigrant farm workers back to the border. In haunting lyrics he describes how it caught fire as it flew low over Los
No record was kept of the workers’ identities. They were simply listed
as “deportee,” and that became the name of the song. Far from being
recognized as workers or even human beings, Guthrie lamented, the dead were treated as criminals. “They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”
Some things haven’t changed much. When agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested over a thousand workers in six Swift and Company meatpacking plants on Tuesday, they too were called criminals. In
The workers, they said, were identity thieves. Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokes person, told reporters outside the slaughterhouse there that “we have been investigating a large identity theft scheme that has victimized many
Not everyone fell into the ICE chorus.
chief Steve Lamken refused to help agents drag workers from the
slaughterhouse. “When this is all over, we’re still here,”he told the
local paper, “and if I have a significant part of my population that’s
fearful and won’t call us, then that’s not good for our community.” In
Greeley, hundreds of people, accompanied by the local priest, lined the
street as their family members were brought out, shouting that they’d
been guilty of nothing more than hard work.
ICE rhetoric would have you believe these deportees had been planning to apply for credit cards and charge expensive stereos or trips to the spa. The reality is that these meatpacking laborers had done what millions of people in this country do every year. They gave a SocialSecurity number to their employer that either didn’t belong to them, or that didn’t exist. And they did it for a simple reason: to get a job in one of the dirtiest, hardest, most dangerous workplaces inAmerica. Mostly, these borrowed numbers probably belong to other immigrants who’ve managed to get green cards. But regardless of who they are, the real owners of the Social Security numbers will benefit, not suffer.
Swift paid thousands of extra dollars into their Social Security
accounts. The undocumented immigrants using the numbers will never be able to collect a dime in retirement pay for all their years of work on the killing floor. If anyone was cheated here, they were.
But whenICE agents are calling the victims criminals in order to make
their immigration raid sound like an action on behalf of upright
ICE has not, of course, accused the immigrant workers of the real crime for which they were arrested. That’s the crime of working.
Since passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, hiring an undocumented worker has been a violation of federal law. Don’t expect Swift executives to go to jail, however, or even to pay a fine. The real targets of this law are workers themselves, who become violators the minute they take a job.
Arresting people for holding a job, however, sounds a little
inconsistent with the traditional values of hard work supported so
strongly by the Bush administration. It makes better PR to accuse workers of a crime that sends shivers down the spines of middle-class newspaper readers, already maxing out their credit cards in the holiday rush.
The real motivation for these immigration raids is more cynical.
TheSwift action follows months of ICE pressuring employers to fire
workers whose Social Security numbers don’t match the agency’s database. These no-match actions have been concentrated in workplaces where immigrants are organizing unions or standing up for their rights.
At the Cintas laundry chain, over 400 workers were terminated in November alone, as a result of no-match letters. Cintas is the target of the national organizing drive by UNITE HERE, the hotel and garment workers union.
In November also, hundreds walked out of the huge
processing plant in Tarheel,
workers for Social Security discrepancies. That non-union plant is not
just the national organizing target for the United Food andCommercial
firing its employees for union activity, and threatening to use their
immigration status against them. When workers atEmeryville,
It’s no accident that workers belong to unions in five of the six Swift
meat packing plants where this week’s raids took place. ICE’s pressure
campaign recalls the history of immigration enforcement during previous periods when anti-immigration bills were debated the U.S.
Congress, as they were this year.
Before 1986, the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service conducted months of high-profile workplace raids, called Operation Jobs. INS used the raids to produce public support for the employer sanctions provision later written into the 1986 immigration law.
In 1998, the INS mounted a huge enforcement action in
targeting meatpacking workers, called Operation Vanguard. Mark Reed,
then INS District Director in
get industry and Congress to support new bracero-type contract labor
programs. “That’s where we’re going,” he said in an interview at the
time. “We depend on foreign labor. If we don’t have illegal immigration
anymore, we’ll have the political support for guest workers.”
Today, ICE and the Bush administration also have an immigration program they want Congress to approve. Once again they want new guest-worker schemes, along with increased enforcement of employer sanctions.
This fall, appealing to right-wing Republicans, the administration
proposed new regulations to require employers to fire workers listed in
a no-match letter, who can’t resolve the discrepancy in their Social
Security numbers. Employers like Cintas and Smithfield now claim
anti-union firings are simply an effort to comply with Bush’s new
regulation, although it hasn’t yet been issued.
At Swift, the administration is sending a message to employers, and
especially to unions: Support its program for immigration reform, or
face a new wave of raids. “The significance is that we’re serious about work site enforcement,” threatened ICE chief Myers.
After six years in office, ICE’s choice of this moment to begin their
campaign is more than suspect. It is designed to force the new Democratic congressional majority to make a choice. The administration is confident that Democrats will endorse workplace raids in order to appear “tough on illegal immigration” in preparation for the 2008 presidential elections. In doing so, they will have to attack two of the major groups who produced the votes that changed Congress in November — labor and Latinos.
Since 1999, however, the AFL-CIO has called for the repeal of employer sanctions, along with the legalization of the 12 million people living in the
But unions today also include many immigrant members. They want the organizations to which they pay their dues to stand up and fight when government agents bring handcuffs into the plant.
The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents workers
atSwift, did go into court on the day of the raid, asking for an
injunction to stop the deportations and to guarantee workers their
rights to habeas corpus and legal representation.
But labor will need to do more than that. Unions and immigrants both
need a bill that would mandate what they’ve advocated since 1999 –the repeal of employer sanctions. Workers without visas would still be
subject to deportation, but enforcement wouldn’t take place in the
workplace, where sanctions deny basic labor rights to millions.
The administration and Republicans in Congress wouldn’t like that, nor
would conservative Democrats. Reps. Rahm Emmanuel and Silvestre Reyes, even want sanctions beefed up. But Democrats and labor must make a choice. They can defend the workers, unions and immigrant families who gave them victory in November (voting Democratic 7 out of 10.) Or Democrats can, as they have so often done, turn their back in another triangulation sacrificing their base.
They can join the government’s chorus calling these workers criminals.
Or they can recognize them as the human beings they are.
David Bacon is a
Communities Without Borders (Cornell University Press, 2006)documents indigenous immigrant communities, including those of meatpacking workers employed in the Swift plant in
David Bacon, Photographs and Stories