This week the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided meatpacking and poultry plants around the country arresting some 1,300 workers for alleged immigration violations and identity theft. If, as it appears to be, this is the start of a generalized crackdown on undocumented workers, we could be witnessing the largest mass deportations since the 1930s when local and federal officials indiscriminately rounded up Mexicans and Mexican Americans (including citizens) and sent them south of the border.
One of the major employers in this round up, the meatpacker Swift, has not been charged with any crime, although it seems unlikely that they would not have known what was up with their workers.
As the Washington Post reported, this move by DHS is likely part of the administration’s strategy to put pressure on Congress to pass immigration “reform.”
Stepped-up raids across the country, not just near the U.S. border with Mexico, could be an effort to pressure Congress to overhaul an immigration system widely seen as needing urgent repair, said Deborah Meyers, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
Immigration reform is a priority of President George W. Bush, but overhaul attempts have so far foundered in Congress.
Advocates of tougher immigration enforcement welcomed the coordinated raids, and said more were needed.
“Everyone agrees that the centerpiece of immigration enforcement has to be at the workplace, so it is good to see that they are doing this,” said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
Union officials condemned what they saw as an unnecessarily rough raid and for singling out Latino workers.
“We’re trying to criminalize the real victims here, who are just trying to find a better life,” said Mark Lauritsen, a United Food & Commercial Workers International Union officer.
The PBS News Hour interviewed Lauritsen from UFCW and Julie Myers from ICE, which is remarkable in that you almost never hear labor reps on this show (I listen to it on the radio). Predictably, the interviewer focused on the “threats” of undocumented workers and identity theft. Lauritsen to his credit tried to deflect the discussion away from criminalizing his membership. He’s walking a fine line. It’s more than a marginal possibility that many of these workers are undocumented. But the union represents the workers regardless of legal status. He focused on how the pending deportations split families, citing cases where both parents worked in the plant and were arrested so the children could not be released from school at the end of the day.
GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you this. These family and communities, would you agree that many of them were here illegally and, therefore, working illegally?
MARK LAURITSEN: We don’t know that; we don’t know what their status was. What I know, as a representative of people that work for a living, is that, if they’re employed where there’s a collective bargaining agreement, I have a job, and our local unions have a job to represent them, regardless, and that’s what the law says. Regardless of any documentation status, I represent them.
GWEN IFILL: So it’s up to the company to determine whether these people are working legally or not?
MARK LAURITSEN: What has happened with these workers, though, is that all their representation was stripped away from them by the immigration folks. They came in, and these folks have been shipped to parts of this country unknown. Their family members do not know where they are. And they’ve been denied the basic right in this country of representation, which could have came from our representatives or it could have came from the attorneys that we had on site willing to represent these folks.
Naturally, this logic is like a foreign language to the interviewer. And although it is not the most forceful statement of “labor rights are human rights,” essentially the union is saying asserting that their right/duty to represent should trump ICE’s right to deport.
Lauritsen also made in interesting and somewhat troubling appeal to history:
MARK LAURITSEN: I don’t know about the [workers’ lack of] documentation; I know about the meatpacking industry. Throughout its history, it was built on immigrant workers. The industry has always relied on the immigrant workforce, be it the Polish, the Danish, the Italians that did it earlier in generations, and it’s always going to be an immigrant workforce that does that.
He’s walking a fine line. How much can you get across in a brief interview? On the one hand, he’s trying to defend the right of his members, who may be undocumented, to work in the industry. On the other hand, this kind of appeal to history suggests that, if the meatpacking workforce has always been immigrant, then it has also always been low-wage. The workforce, has not always been immigrant. It has also consisted of rural migrants (black and white) from the American countryside. He could have added that earlier generations of packinghouse workers organized a militant union that actually raised wages and improved conditions.
These complexities are part of the key to why the children and grandchildren of the previous generation of packinghouse workers in the midwest and west are uneasy about the newcomers. It is not the fault of new immigrants that the wages are low. The decline of wages and conditions began as the business strategy of so-called “New Breed” packers like IBP in the 1980s, and migrated to the unionized packers as the New Breed undermined the profits of the old line packers. Now the old and new have merged, and the industry is once again dominated by very large corporations like ConAgra and Cargill who are happy to benefit from the low wages pioneered by the New Breed.
Without this context, is it surprising that communities sometimes blame new immigrants for their own plight?