In October of 2017, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Tom Homan made the announcement that the agency would be quadrupling the number of investigations of businesses suspected of knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants in 2018. The declaration struck fear in both the hearts of immigrant families and the industries that wouldn’t be able to function without their labor. And one of the spheres feeling the worst of the pressure is the meatpacking industry.
Last Thursday, ICE raided a Bean Station, Tenn., meat processing plant and arrested 97 employees who are “subject to removal from the United States” due to their immigration status. The owners of the plant, Southeastern Provisions, were charged with allegedly evading over $2 million in payroll taxes associated with the undocumented workers, filing false tax returns, and hiring immigrants without legal employment eligibility. According to local reporters, the factory has been quiet and shuttered since then, and nearly 600 students from affected families have stopped attending school. The event has been noted as the single largest jobsite immigration raid so far during Trump’s administration.
Industries like meatpacking—as well as dairy farming, produce harvesting, and industrial canning—rely heavily on undocumented immigrant labor. The Department of Labor officially puts the number of undocumented farmworkers at 46 percent, but industry experts and labor advocates estimate that the number is much, much higher—possibly closer to 70 percent. These jobs require backbreaking physical labor, and are often monotonous and tedious, requiring workers to repeat the same motions or tasks for upwards of 12 hours a day, six days a week. The common justification for the high percentage of immigrant workers is that these are jobs that American-born workers don’t want to do, and studies have repeatedly shown that this claim is way more than just an anecdote.
While nearly all parts of the US food system are propped up by immigrant labor, the intensely physical and gruesome work of animal processing is even more so. Slaughterhouse work is dangerous, loud, and gory—and business owners regularly can’t find enough laborers with working papers to meet their production needs. Some are able to hire immigrant labor through the H2-B temporary worker visa program, but gaining eligibility as an H2-B employer is time-consuming and difficult, so many facilities turn to undocumented immigrants.
The unique dangers of meatpacking jobs—sharp equipment with the capability to maim or kill, exposure to harsh chemicals and bleach with poor ventilation and protections—are doubled for undocumented workers, who have virtually no recourse to employers who demand long hours and dangerously fast-paced output. Employers are able to keep wages low, demand long hours, deny overtime pay or any health insurance or sick time, and discourage employees from reporting injuries to avoid OSHA fines, according to a report from the Human Rights Watch. It was only after ICE raids on Smithfield pork's largest processing facility in 2007, which expelled nearly half of its workforce, that employees there were able to unionize for better pay and workplace protections.
Add to these exploitations the overwhelming fear of an ICE officer showing up on the cutting floor, and the traumas of the workplace become deeply psychological. In the case of slaughterhouses and packing plants with a majority of undocumented workers, employees become a factory full of sitting ducks, easy targets for wide-scale ICE raids. While a person is able to refuse ICE entry into their own home, they are at the mercy of their employer during the workday.
“Know-your-rights and other legal trainings have been effective for many individuals and communities,” said Shuya Ohno of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, a group that was in emergency response mode after the Thursday raid. “But [they] are not enough for an entire community to respond adequately to an emergency of this scale.”
At Southeastern Provisions, 11 employees were arrested on federal criminal charges. Fifty-six more employees are still being detained in out-of-state facilities. The Internal Revenue Service's search warrant names owner James Brantley and his family as the alleged tax evaders and those responsible for knowingly hiring undocumented workers, but no arrests have been made of either management or the owners.