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"The government was sending a message"
Immigration raids terrorize Swift workers

By Lee Sustar | January 5, 2007 | Page 16

NEARLY A month after raids on six Swift and Co. meatpacking plants in Texas, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota, workers and their unions are still struggling to locate those in detention, contest deportation orders and provide assistance to those who lost their jobs.

The December 12 raids caused the shutdown of the plants, as agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stormed factory floors and pulled aside Latinos among the 13,000 workers.

Jim Olson, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 941 in Marshalltown, Iowa, said that ICE agents claim they were looking for a small number of people allegedly involved in an identity theft ring,

"But they certainly could have come up with a better way of doing it, without essentially going into these plants and communities, and terrorizing 13,000 people, and they end up arresting or taking away about 10 percent of them," he said in an interview.

"They came in, locked the plant down and started questioning them about whether they were U.S. citizens. They took about 90 out of the Marshalltown plant. Some were taken to Camp Dodge, a facility of the Iowa National Guard. Some were taken to planes and deported. Some were bussed to a detention center in Georgia. This totally disrupted their lives and their families."

The picture was similar at the other five Swift plants targeted--all but one of them represented by the UFCW.

According to Darin Rehnelt, business agent for UFCW Local 1161 in Worthington, Minn., at least 100 of 1,700 Swift plant workers in his union were detained, and more left their jobs out of fear of a continued crackdown. In the meantime, the union is operating a food pantry and working with local charities and the United Way to provide assistance to those who lost their jobs, he said.

Rehnelt said the ICE raids "are a show of force, but it's a drop in the bucket" to round up 1,100 Swift workers when there are an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented workers. "Believe me, deportation is not the answer," he said.

Ironically, Swift management had signed on years ago to ICE's Basic Pilot program, a series of procedures under which management checks workers with ICE and DHS to verify that they have valid documentation in order to work.

Monica Guizar of the National Immigration Law Center pointed out that Swift went to court to try to enjoin the raids, and even approached ICE about re-verifying workers--but ICE refused. Instead, the Feds sent heavily armed agents storming into the plants, many of them in riot gear.

"They basically conducted racial profiling," Guizar said. "ICE claimed that they had hundreds of names" of people involved in identity theft. But when they came into the plant, they rounded up those who appeared to be Latinos--including those born in the U.S.--and they were detained."

What happened at Swift, she said, is very different to what ICE claims it wants to achieve--targeting employers who violate the law. "Instead," Guizar said, "they're targeting workers."

Swift management opposed the raids, particularly after having gone to some length to collaborate with ICE. Nevertheless, the raids will pressure employers to seek even greater collaboration with ICE and DHS--from extensive immigration verification procedures under the Basic Pilot Program, to terminating workers whose Social Security numbers don't match those on file with the government.

The new ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers program, or IMAGE, will consolidate these efforts--and, in effect, "turn employers into de facto ICE agents," willingly or not, according to Guizar of NILC. Meanwhile, she said, ICE has done nothing to prosecute employers who routinely violate the law in order to exploit undocumented immigrants.

"The truth is that employers who hire these workers are not abiding by any state and federal employment laws, and it's easy for employers to threaten to call ICE or intimidate the workers," she said. "If workers get to the stage of filing a wage-and-hour lawsuit, the employers will often raise workers' immigration status in the meeting."

For now, the Swift raids allow DHS and ICE officials to counter criticism from the right wing that they're failing to enforce immigration law, said the UFCW's Olson in Marshalltown. "I think the government was trying to make a political statement," he said. Unions "need to advocate for a reform of immigration laws" he added, pointing out that it currently takes many years to get the documentation necessary to work.

"You can't go across the country shutting down meatpacking plants" and deporting undocumented workers, Olson said, because "pretty soon, the public wouldn't have anything to eat. Somebody's got to be in those plants doing those jobs, period."

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