By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
Amanda Salcido was standing in line clutching a package of ground beef when she saw the $100 bills. The man in front of her at the United Supermarket opened his wallet to pay for groceries, and she watched over his shoulder as he riffled through the bills, looking for a twenty. He couldn't find one, so he handed the cashier a hundred.
The man was short and dark, with the Mayan features shared by nearly all of the Guatemalan workers at the Panhandle town's largest employer, the Swift & Company meatpacking plant in nearby Cactus. Salcido guessed that unlike her, he still worked there and had just gotten paid. That unlike her, he hadn't been fired after getting hurt and being put on doctor-ordered restrictions.
It was at that moment when her composure began to crack. "This S.O.B. has a job that should be mine," she thought. "He's making the money I should be making to feed my family." About all she had in the cupboard was a bottle of mustard.
Salcido, now 43, is a full-faced mother of four who worked at the meatpacking plant for 15 years. Her father, a Mexican-born construction worker, and her mother, a housecleaner, taught their kids to work hard, which is exactly what Salcido had done since dropping out of school in the tenth grade. She didn't want anyone's help, least of all the government's. In the months since she'd been sent home from work at the plant, she just kept going as best she knew how -- looking for another job, trying to make ends meet by selling plates of food to people she knew. But standing there as the Guatemalan riffled through his 100s, she was overcome by rage. She thought of how she'd left her kids every day to start work at 6:30 a.m., standing on a floor covered in blood and grease, cutting cow carcasses as they swung by on a chain that always seemed to move too fast. She thought of how, later, after her tendinitis got bad from all the cutting and she slipped in the bloody muck and hurt her back, she cleaned the bathrooms and worked in the employment office. She knew dozens of other injured workers who had also been fired, and most of them were replaced by Guatemalan immigrants as well.
She felt bad for the Guatemalans. Since most were in the country illegally and feared being sent home, they worked harder than anyone and never complained. She and her coworkers knew that the tiny Central Americans -- many of whom came from the same highland area and spoke a Mayan dialect, not English or Spanish -- were for the most part undocumented. One day a couple of years before, she'd helped out at the employment office when a group of new Guatemalan workers arrived, the first in a Guatemala-U.S. flow that began as a trickle around 2000 and soon became a constant stream. When asked their names, many would point to their government-issued IDs or Social Security cards. Some had names like Smith and Johnson. The implications were obvious, but when Salcido mentioned it to a manager, she was ignored. And so that day in the supermarket, looking at the Mayan man, her anger and despair destroyed what was left of her pride, and she made the decision she'd been fighting since the day she was escorted out of the plant: "To hell with them," she thought. "I'll let them work, and I'll go get food stamps."
The next day, she found herself spilling her story to the government worker who signed her up for public assistance. Salcido is a no-nonsense woman, strong and stoic and not prone to emotional outbursts. But as she explained her situation and filled out the paperwork, she wept. Then she went to the supermarket and loaded up a cart. She stocked the kitchen with her kids' favorite foods: pizza, boxed juices, fruit roll-ups. When her teenage daughter got home from school that afternoon, she opened the refrigerator as she always did. But since there had been next to nothing inside for weeks, she immediately closed it. Then she paused. Opened it a second time. "Mom!" she called. "Where did you get all this food?"
"God helped us," her mother replied.
Today Salcido is a plaintiff in two separate class-action lawsuits against Swift. One alleges that the company wrongly terminated dozens of injured workers to save on workers' compensation costs, slashing them from $6 million in 2002 to just $600,000 two years later, and another claims the company deliberately and systematically replaced native workers with illegal Guatemalan immigrants in a scheme to depress wages. While Swift acknowledges that it fired employees who'd been on injury-related restrictions for more than six months, it denies any wrongdoing. The company also says it did its best to obey immigration laws during hiring.
After Salcido was fired, she was angry at the Guatemalans who appeared to have replaced her and her coworkers. But she later concluded that they were all victims of the company's operating strategies, of an environment rife with injuries, with immigrants too terrified to complain or report getting hurt, and sadistic supervisors who intimidated workers when they reported injuries or took their gripes to federal safety inspectors. So she and more than a dozen former employees decided to do something about it. They began talking to lawyers in 2003, and the first case is scheduled for trial in June.
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.
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.
As a union steward with Local 540 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Valenzuela filed numerous grievances with supervisors after workers fell and hurt themselves. And she'd complained several times about that patch of cement. "I'd told the supervisors it was gonna cause someone to slip and fall, and doggone it, it was me," she would say later.
As she grabbed a liver box from the trolley, she lost her footing. She managed to catch herself on a pole before hitting the ground, but as she did she strained muscles in her back and arm. It wasn't the first time she'd fallen, but, pushing 50, her body wasn't as resilient as it used to be. She was more sensitive to the grueling work of standing all day with two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch, bagging cow livers, trimming heads and pulling spinal cords. Later, a shoulder injury from repetitive cutting required surgery on her rotator cuff. She returned to work two months after the procedure and was ordered by her doctor not to use her right arm. For "light duty," she was assigned to pull the spinal cords out of carcasses with her left arm. But in order to balance on the wet floor, she had to hold the carcasses' front legs with her right, and she wound up reinjuring it.
The most common complaints Valenzuela heard as a union steward were about the dangerous floors, the speed of the chain and the dull knives that made cutting difficult and caused tendinitis. Statistics on the number of injuries at the plant each year were not available, but Valenzuela and other former employees say someone got hurt at least once a week, even once a day. Then there were the deaths. The worst she remembers is the time a maintenance worker's head was crushed in one of the roller machines that press cow hides. OSHA reports confirm a 2001 accident investigation in the tanning department that concluded with fines of $10,000 for two serious safety violations. The reports also show that in 2003, the company was fined $12,500 after chlorine mists caused bloody noses, vomiting and headaches. Other problems investigated that year included no employee access to potable water and toilets.
Valenzuela is a small woman with sharp brown eyes and the kind of cunning that comes from surviving in a gritty, merciless world. She dropped out of school in the sixth grade to help her parents on their farm, married at 16 and had six children. When she divorced and her husband failed to pay child support, she got a job at Swift making $8.20 an hour. When she was fired 15 years later, her pay was $10.45. She blames the company for many of the injuries at the plant, saying supervisors failed to properly train workers and fix problems that caused accidents. "We had safety regulations, but a lot of the time they weren't followed because they didn't care if people got hurt," Valenzuela says. The company dismisses such claims.
"Clearly, everyone wants to work in a safe environment," says McHugh, the Swift spokesman, adding that a safe environment is vital to retain workers and that the company collaborates with the union to investigate complaints and fix problems. "Turnover is detrimental to our business."
As Valenzuela became more involved with the union, she had her daughter teach her to use the Internet to research labor law and safety regulations. She says that no matter how many grievances she filed, conditions rarely improved. When the chain was moving too fast, more people would get hurt, and she'd go into the office to check the speed. If it was above what she says was the maximum speed of 375 to 380 head of cattle per hour, she'd notify a supervisor. They'd slow it, she says, but as soon as she walked away they'd speed it back up. Once, she says, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector told her, "Blanca, you need to watch this chain. I clocked it at 406, 407." Despite the safety risks linked to high chain speed, the federal government doesn't regulate it -- OSHA lacks a standard that sets an industry-wide requirement for speed. And while the company eventually installed no-slip panels on the floors, Valenzuela and numerous other workers say the volume of slippery cattle detritus continued to be a problem. "There were grievances filed on greasy floors, and they were settled, but the problem was never solved," she says, describing how one worker would be responsible for cleaning three areas, each equivalent to a Denny's dining room, dragging bins of gristle, blood and heavy stomachs and failing to keep up. "They didn't want to hire enough people to keep the floor clean."
Go to the Web site of the American Meat Institute and you'll find a report headlined, "If Upton Sinclair were alive today, he'd be amazed by the U.S. meat industry." It cites a host of regulations passed in the last century, including the Food and Drug Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, and congratulates itself on a 70 percent decline in work-related injuries and illnesses since 1990. Yet a report by the Government Accountability Office questioned that data, noting that the injury reports don't include night-shift workers performing dangerous cleaning and maintenance tasks on machinery -- their injuries are counted with those of regular janitors and cleaning crews.
Experts such as Lance Compa, a professor of U.S. labor law at Cornell University who wrote a Human Rights Watch report on meatpacking, and Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation and a magazine contributor who's written widely about the beef industry, point out that starting in the '60s, when hundreds of meatpackers still competed in the marketplace, a few companies moved their plants away from urban union strongholds and slashed wages. Now a handful of large corporations control the majority of the market -- Swift calls itself the world's second-largest beef and pork processor -- and union membership and wages have plummeted while the number of immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America has surged. Meatpacking is one of the lowest-paid industrial jobs, with one of the highest turnover rates.
Critics such as Compa say these conditions are the result of ineffective governmental oversight and an unscrupulous emphasis on production and yields. Early in his presidency, George W. Bush -- who received substantial campaign contributions from Swift's co-owner, Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, now called HM Capital Partners -- nullified an ergonomics standard that was drawn up on the meatpacking industry under President Bill Clinton and was soon to take effect. "The Bush administration has pulled way back on enforcement of OSHA standards," Compa says. "The companies' overriding priority of production overcomes health and safety considerations -- getting the product out the door becomes the be-all and end-all at the plants, and that pressure is felt right down to the line supervisor level."
Many plant supervisors, including those at Swift, receive bonuses based on product yields, which provides little incentive to report injuries or slow the chain. "It goes right to the top company management," Compa says. "They create the culture. It's a low-margin industry, and volume is how you make money. If one company did it alone they'd be at a competitive disadvantage. That's where the government comes in."
High on the Cactus workers' list of complaints was that when they were injured and had to work with restrictions, they were singled out and punished by supervisors. And the treatment worsened if supervisors suspected they'd complained to government inspectors. Clara Tovar, a 45-year-old naturalized citizen from Mexico who worked at the plant for four years, says she slipped and fell on the stairs on the way back from lunch one day, tumbling down the entire staircase. She went to see the nurse, and when she returned to the line to resume trimming cheek meat, her supervisor glared at her. "Where the fuck have you been?" she recalls him saying.
"I fell," she told him.
He laughed derisively. "You didn't fall. And if you don't do your job, I'm gonna fire you."
Things didn't improve after she complained to OSHA inspectors about the plastic gloves, which were reused. Though the supervisors insisted they'd been washed, Tovar and other former workers say the gloves were consistently covered in hair and blood. People were getting rashes on their hands. So one day, she and Salcido, the woman who eventually applied for food stamps after being fired, waited in line outside the office to talk to OSHA personnel doing an inspection. The line was long, and supervisors came and told them to return to work or be fired. So that day when they got off, she and Salcido followed the inspectors out of the plant and told them about the gloves. The inspectors said they would look into it. But in the remaining time that the women worked there, they say the gloves remained just as dirty.
Tovar's supervisors suspected she'd complained to OSHA. When the doctor recommended she sit while cutting, she was given a broken chair. When she had to go to the bathroom, a supervisor would follow her and count down outside the restroom. She once caught several supervisors imitating the way she walked and laughing. "It got to a point where I was crying all the time," she says. Supervisors called her a crybaby. One day, Salcido found her in the bathroom weeping. Tovar told her she wanted to quit. "You can't quit," her friend told her. "If you quit, they win." Tovar says she called OSHA and told someone what was happening. They agreed it sounded like the supervisors were trying to force her to quit because she'd complained, but no one told her about the OSHA program created to protect whistleblowers. Instead, she says, a safety worker recommended she get a lawyer.
Many of the workers interviewed, especially women, told similar stories of poor treatment by male supervisors. One, Margie Salazar, said one supervisor would only allow certain women to go to the bathroom. When she questioned it, he explained that it was because they were "pretty." She also said he touched women on the ass. Another former worker said a manager commented on her breasts, and a deposition in one of the lawsuits shows that a former human resources manager was fired in response to sexual harassment allegations. "The supervisors are mean," Salazar says. "They turn down your self-esteem, make you feel like you're not worth nothin' anymore."
Amanda Salcido was helping out in the training room when she noticed something wasn't right. Large numbers of Guatemalans had begun arriving at the Cactus plant sometime in 2000, after a Swift plant in Kansas burned down, and most of the new arrivals were short and squat, with indigenous features and little mastery of English or Spanish. They spoke Quiche, one of two dozen Mayan dialects still spoken in Guatemala, and many were from the same highland villages, places with names like Joyabaj and Zacualpa, where all there is to do is pick coffee or cut sugarcane for a few dollars a day. "When I asked their names and they told me some English name, I'd say, 'What?'" Salcido says. "How can your name be John Smith if you don't even speak Spanish, let alone English?" She recalls that one man, a Salvadoran who was going by the name Jose, admitted that he was using someone else's documents.
Salcido pulled aside the assistant human resources manager, she says, a man named Oscar Arriaga who still works at the plant. She told him it was obvious that many of the Guatemalans were in the country illegally and that their IDs were false. Arriaga, she says, got annoyed and told her to keep doing the paperwork. "Finally, I said, 'I'm going to the bathroom,'" she says. "'I want nothing to do with this.'"
McHugh, the Swift spokesman, says he has no knowledge of such allegations and points out that the company maintains an anonymous whistleblower line that workers can call to report abuses or crimes. Any manager accused of violations is promptly investigated, he says. "To suggest Swift knowingly hired illegal workers, or even worse, conspired with ID theft rings, is outrageous, untrue and in bad faith," he says.
One lawsuit alleges Swift violated federal racketeering laws by knowingly hiring and harboring illegal immigrants. After Dallas lawyer Domingo Garcia filed the wrongful termination lawsuit in Dallas County and discovered evidence to support the allegation that managers knowingly hired illegal workers, he tipped off Angel Reyes's firm, Heygood, Orr, Reyes & Bartolomei, and they filed a federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) lawsuit. Federal racketeering statutes were expanded in 1996 to apply to immigration violations, and in recent years such lawsuits have become a rare but increasingly utilized avenue for punishing companies that hire undocumented workers. A Chicago firm has taken the lead, winning a class certification against poultry giant Tyson Foods, Inc. that makes plaintiffs of all legally employed hourly wage earners at 15 plants.
McHugh calls the Dallas RICO action a "copycat lawsuit," arguing that the company did due diligence in filling out employment paperwork and checking the IDs presented by prospective workers. "The evidence will show the lawsuit has no basis in fact or law," he says.
The two lawsuits against Swift are separate, but the lawyers describe both as painting a picture of a company that, after it was purchased by Hicks's HM Capital Partners, systematically and deliberately purged injured legal resident workers and replaced them with illegal Guatemalans. "When the venture capital cowboys come to town, they know where to find the money," Reyes says of the Dallas investment firm.
"What really upsets me is that ICE arrests all these immigrants working in terrible conditions, and yet the CEOs in their suites are left untouched," Garcia says.
A former worker who is not a plaintiff but says he'd like to join the RICO lawsuit says managers helped two of his friends who were in the country illegally get jobs at the plant. Genaro Cantú, a 37-year-old McAllen-born man who worked at the plant for 14 years, alleges it was common knowledge that Arriaga helped illegal immigrants get jobs. One day in 2003 or 2004, he says, he told Arriaga he had two friends who were looking for work but weren't legal residents. "He said each one would have to pay $1,000 and to just make sure that the Social Security numbers were real," Cantú claims. Arriaga allegedly told him to take the men to Leonore Hernandez, an employment manager who, according to a deposition, was later fired for taking kickbacks. Cantú says he went with the men and watched them pay her $1,000 each in cash. They'd bought stolen IDs from someone in Cactus, he says, and both were hired. The Mexican man has since left the plant, and the Guatemalan was fired after the raids, Cantú says.
Asked if he was willing to tell his story on the record, Cantú replied, "I want to testify. I'll tell Arriaga to his face in court." The former worker says Arriaga fired him last July after he complained that he was doing the work of two people, though the manager told him he was being terminated for fighting. In a deposition, Arriaga denied all of these allegations. He didn't return phone calls from the newspaper requesting comment.
Numerous other former workers said it was common knowledge that a large number of employees were using stolen IDs. Serrato, the 62-year-old who worked in the hide department for 18 years, says his granddaughter's husband worked at the plant using someone else's Social Security number and discovered that child support was being withdrawn from his checks. Such accounts are similar to others chronicled by The Dallas Morning News last November. There was an Iraq war veteran who was jailed on a DWI-related offense he knew nothing about and a mother who nearly lost food stamps and Medicaid benefits because a Guatemalan immigrant was using her Social Security number to work at Swift.
Several former employees say there were even underage Guatemalans working at the plant. Margie Salazar says she often ran into boys who worked on the kill floor who looked like they were her kids' age -- 13 or 14 -- with new mustaches just coming in. Once she asked one of them how old he was. Thirteen, he told her. "Why are you working here?" she asked. "We need the work, we need the money," he replied.
Serrato, Salazar and others also said that vans, even buses, full of Guatemalans would sometimes arrive at the plant.
What makes the former workers so angry is not only that they assume they lost their jobs to these immigrants but that the Guatemalans' illegal status and their fear of complaining or reporting injuries made conditions worse for everybody.
Shortly after HM Capital Partners and Booth Creek Management bought a majority interest in ConAgra Foods' beef and pork processing business in September 2002, rumors of firings began circulating at the Cactus plant. By that time Blanca Valenzuela had left her leadership position at the union, so she asked one of the union leaders about the rumors. He said they were true. "Is my name on the list?" she asked. He nodded. "What are you going to do about it?" "There's nothing we can do about it," he answered, explaining that orders had come from corporate headquarters to get rid of injured workers. McHugh says the new policy was agreed upon between management and the union. Local Union 540 leaders at the plant did not return phone calls for comment.
On October 14, 2002, Valenzuela, Salcido and dozens of other workers were called in to speak with Arriaga and, in most cases, safety coordinator Brian Atchley. There was a union steward present at each meeting in which the employees were informed that they were being placed on leave for 18 months. If during that time they were able to work without restrictions, a letter informed them, they could return, and if not, their termination would be formalized.
Salcido hadn't heard any of the rumors, and when she was called in and given the letter she was shocked. "They bought the company, but not the light-duty people," she says Arriaga told her.
"Why don't you get rid of all of the illegals? Why me?" she asked him. He had her escorted out of the building. Tovar, the woman Salcido had comforted in the bathroom and urged to keep working, saw her friend crying as she was led out of the plant. She didn't know that she'd soon be dismissed as well.
All three were incensed by the union's compliance with the firings. "All these people who went home were union members," Valenzuela says. "They turned their backs on us. They didn't even call us to say, 'We're trying to get you back.'"
It's not uncommon for companies to terminate workers unable to do the full range of job tasks, especially in physically demanding industries like meatpacking. "Companies can't be expected to carry people indefinitely," Compa, of Cornell, says. But many of the employees who lost their jobs were still able to work and perform necessary tasks, and Compa adds that the firing of injured workers is a widespread problem that contributes to low injury-reporting rates, especially in nonunionized plants.
"When they fired 25 or 30 workers with filed workers' compensation claims, that set up a chilling effect throughout the plant," says Garcia, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. "It sent a message saying, 'If you file claims you're gonna get fired.'" Not only did the company reduce workers' compensation costs drastically, it also saved money on wages by replacing longtime employees making between $10 and $13 per hour with new workers at starting salaries, he says. "It was just total exploitation of the labor force by Swift and their corporate overlords," he says.
None of the former workers interviewed was rehired during their 18 months of forced leave. A couple applied for clerical positions but were told they lacked the necessary experience. Salcido did have clerical experience but was denied an office job. She eventually found work as a workers' compensation caseworker at a chiropractic office in Amarillo. Others are still struggling. Salazar saw there was a desk job opening at the Swift plant, but she lacks computer experience. "Thirteen years out there, and they're talking about a computer?" she says. She recently started a clothing business out of her home, and her husband is putting in longer hours as a truck driver to support their six children.
Valenzuela, in her mid-50s and with no savings after raising her six kids alone, had a particularly hard time. Unable to find work in Dumas because most in the small town knew she was injured, she eventually found a job at the Family Dollar store in Amarillo. Despite working double shifts to keep up with the mortgage payments on her house in Dumas, she was unable to make enough money and it was ultimately repossessed. She suffered a heart attack, quit her job and is now living with her daughter.
Who do they blame for their woes? Some point to the Guatemalans, saying there are plenty of Americans who applied for work at the plant but were turned away. Most hold the company responsible, though. Salazar says she doesn't think the plant could operate without newly arrived illegal immigrants, explaining that most Americans who apply "don't last" in the tough conditions. Like most of the other former workers, especially those who came from Mexico and later acquired legal residency, she feels for the Guatemalans. "They know they can't complain about nothin'," she says. Salcido says she gets about two calls per week from Guatemalan plant workers asking what to do about injuries and whether they can file workers' compensation claims. She explains that no matter their legal status, they can. "I told them I'd help them, but none came," she says. "I guess they were still afraid."
Outside Cactus on Highway 287, Swift billboards advertise jobs at the plant, which now start at more than $11 per hour. "The quality of our meat is surpassed only by the quality of our people," one proclaims, bright red and white under a dishwater-blue sky. As one turns off the highway and drives through Cactus's trailer-lined streets, the impact of the raids is evident in apartment-for-rent signs, closed restaurants and a boarded-up Guatemalan store. With all of the bodegas and abarrotes and signs in Spanish, it could be a town anywhere in Mexico or Central America.
I visit the mayor's grocery store -- the only one in town -- to see if he'll help me find some of the Guatemalans who I'm told remain in Cactus. Luis Aguilar is himself an immigrant who came to Texas from Mexico more than 30 years ago. But the mayor isn't interested in talking to reporters. One of his employees says he was so angry with a description of himself in The Dallas Morning News that he wanted to sue, and when the worker calls the mayor and tells him there's a Dallas reporter who wants to talk to him, Aguilar hangs up. So I ask the police chief what he thinks.
"Last reporter we had here tried to talk to people in a bar got a bunch of beer bottles thrown at her," he says, his face somber. Cactus is a wild town, he says, where assaults and public drunkenness are constant. I wind up in the laundromat. Having lived in Guatemala, I can spot the Central Americans the moment they walk in. I talk with a half-dozen throughout the day, though several women don't speak Spanish, just their native Quiche, which makes conversation nearly impossible. All are tight-lipped. Some are terrified.
A dark-skinned woman, barely five feet tall with braided hair wound into a bun, tells me she and her husband are from Joyabaj, Quiche, and that he still works at the plant. They have an 18-month-old. "I'm scared," she says. "Immigration hasn't come back, but they might. If I got sent back and my baby was left here, I'd die." Like the others, she tells in accented Spanish of how they paid a coyote to lead them through the desert for days on end, eventually winding up here after her husband heard there was work at the plant in Cactus. She's not sure how old she is. She describes Guatemala, one of Latin America's poorest countries, as home, but a place to which she can't imagine returning. "There's no work in Guatemala -- just in the corn and coffee fields, and it's horrible. You scratch up your arms and get swarmed by the flies, and even then you don't make any money."
The ones who will answer say they got their IDs -- which belonged to other people -- from vendors in Dumas or Cactus before getting hired at the plant. News stories on court documents unsealed in Amarillo and Salt Lake City report a large-scale stolen document racket that stretches throughout the West, from El Paso to Utah. A small Guatemalan riding a girl's rusted pink Schwinn tells me he bought someone else's documents before getting a job at Swift. He wasn't working when ICE arrived at the plant, and when he heard what had happened he hid inside his apartment for four days. Like hundreds of other unauthorized employees, though, he was fired when he returned to work.
A 30-ish Guatemalan driving with his wife in a van pulls over to talk to a friend. He interrupts their animated conversation in Quiche to tell me that some people are still staying inside their homes, hiding, months after the raids. He left his job at the plant several weeks before ICE came, he tells me. "I'm evangelical, and I believe in dreams. One day I dreamed Immigration came, three white buses, and they took people away," he says in Spanish. "I couldn't get arrested -- I have two kids here. I thank God that I still have my family." He's looking for work, he says, because he knows things haven't changed in Guatemala. "We have faith things will change soon, that we'll find work," he says.
The pink evening sky is fading into darkness over Cactus, and he looks at the clock on the dashboard. "We'd better get going," he says. "You have to be careful around here. It gets dark, and bad things happen."