Swift Meatpacking Plant and Illegal Immigrants

Swift & Company pitted employee against employee when it replaced injured workers with illegal immigrants

Since Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents descended on Swift & Company plants in six states last December and arrested more than 1,200 immigrants, scores of articles have been written about the raids and their fallout: towns' populations cut in half, children left behind when parents were deported and hundreds of immigrants prosecuted for identity theft and immigration violations. But the lawsuits against Swift raise the question: Why, when ICE maintains its goal is to punish the leaders of companies employing large numbers of illegal immigrants, has not one manager or company higher-up been indicted?

The meatpacker, co-owned by HM Capital Partners, the Dallas investment company cofounded by Tom Hicks, the billionaire investor and real estate mogul who owns the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Stars, claimed in news reports that it was unaware thousands of its workers were undocumented and complained that the government had made an example of the company to show it was tough on illegal immigration. President and CEO Sam Rovit pointed out that the company used the federal Basic Pilot program, which confirms the validity of employees' Social Security numbers. Yet the database does not provide a way to ferret out workers who have assumed the identities of American citizens.

The largest number of arrests last December -- 295 -- took place at the Cactus plant, and 53 people were indicted on identity theft and immigration charges. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, 36 have pleaded guilty. Those who pleaded guilty to felony charges face maximum sentences of five to ten years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.

Jose Serrato is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that Swift fired injured employees and replaced them with illegal Guatemalan workers.
Jose Serrato is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that Swift fired injured employees and replaced them with illegal Guatemalan workers.
In the aftermath of the immigration raids at the Swift meatpacking plants in December...
Photos by Megan Feldman
In the aftermath of the immigration raids at the Swift meatpacking plants in December...

A review of civil lawsuits and interviews with more than a dozen plaintiffs and other current and former workers at the Cactus plant found evidence that managers were well aware that large numbers of their employees were working with false documents and, in some cases, had knowingly hired them.

An assistant human resources manager allegedly helped undocumented immigrants secure jobs at the plant, directing them to an employment manager who charged the immigrants $1,000 per person and who was eventually fired.

Salcido and several others say that when they helped illiterate Mayan Guatemalans fill out employment applications, the new workers were often unable to say their names and would instead point to their supposedly legitimate IDs. Salcido says that when she alerted the assistant HR manager, she was ignored.

The story of what happened at the Cactus plant is a window onto the consequences of America's ambivalent relationship to immigration -- how low-skilled workers, legal and illegal alike, are hurt and cast aside by the relentless demands of the market, the shortfalls of U.S. immigration policy and its incongruous and haphazard enforcement. It's also the story of today's meatpacking industry, which has been a magnet for poor immigrants since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 and jump-started reforms. In spite of those reforms, meatpacking remains one of the country's most dangerous occupations, one in which injuries from catastrophic amputations to chronic carpal tunnel syndrome are commonplace.

Though Swift spokesman Sean McHugh maintains safety is a top priority and says the facility's injury and lost workday rates are below industry averages, the accounts of former workers reveal a brutal work environment in which safety precautions were persistently disregarded and failed to prevent injuries caused by slips and falls on greasy floors, rapid line speed or repetitive cutting with dull knives. Many of those interviewed said verbal abuse, intimidation and sexual harassment at the hands of supervisors were common, especially after they'd been injured or had reported safety violations to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. And in the end, when those suing the company were fired, they say the union to which they'd paid dues for years and in some cases decades did nothing to try to save their jobs.

Jose Serrato, a 62-year-old Mexican-American who worked at the plant for 18 years, puts it this way: "It's an injustice -- what they did to the Guatemalans, and what they did to us."

Cactus is a collection of small houses, bodegas and trailer homes that straddle Highway 287 about an hour north of Amarillo. Erected in the middle of the prairie dotted with farmland, cattle feedlots and oil refineries, it's a company town. The official population is 2,500, but most people say it's almost certainly double that -- at least it was before the raids -- and the majority of the residents work at the meatpacking plant. Others commute from surrounding towns, driving from places like Dumas, Stratford and Sunray to the sprawling Swift compound that turns thousands of head of cattle into packaged meat each day.

Blanca Valenzuela drove the 14 miles from Dumas to Cactus each morning for nearly 15 years. She worked numerous jobs, mostly trimming different parts of cow carcasses, and on this particular day in the late '90s she was boxing livers. She'd been watching a spot on the floor where a brick had come loose. Maintenance workers had removed it and filled the hole with smooth-surfaced cement, making her already slippery work space even more precarious. The constant downpour of blood, guts and grease made it difficult to stand firm while she repeatedly slashed into carcasses that dangled overhead from the fast-moving chain. Slips and falls had been a problem at the plant since she first got a job there in the late '80s.

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