These People are “Illegal”

Three blocks from the Swift beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, where hundreds of workers were terrorized last week, is the Catholic church of the surrounding Latino community. Last Tuesday, many workers went to a special morning mass there before heading to work. December 12th, The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is a very special day in the Hispanic community.

Those who work in the Swift meat packing plant went to work in the morning, saying goodbye to their families, carrying their sack lunch, not knowing that they would not be returning home again.  Shortly after, federal agents surrounded the meat plant in riot gear, secured the area, and began to detain hundreds of workers.  More than 300 workers were rounded up in Greeley, and more than 1200 nationwide in a raid on several Swift meat packing plants.

It was in one of the many empty rooms of this church where I taught "survival" courses to this Spanish-speaking immigrant community for two years.  This community supplies Swift, the world’s second largest beef processor, with a cheap labor force. My students had come to Greeley, an agricultural region, to look for work, to find an opportunity. They had come to make money to send back to their families in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and more. The largest sector of the economy in many of these countries comes from the money that is sent back from family members in the United States, making entire countries dependent on this "illegal" immigration for their survival.  There are few other opportunities in these countries, and many men know that in order to take care of their family, to survive, it is necessary to go north.  Thousands make the journey into the U.S. each day.

The journey is not exactly easy.  Manuel, one of my students from Honduras, paid a coyote $5000 to bring him across 3 borders, through the deserts of Arizona, and into California.  In a group of about 30, crossing the border in Guatemala, they were robbed of the few possessions they carried.  A friend of Manuel’s resisted and was stabbed to death, but the group continued on. In Mexico they slept in the mountains without shelter, under the stars, using banana tree leaves to keep warm.  They hid inside a house in Mexico City for 10 days, never going outside to avoid calling attention to themselves. Later they were packed into the luggage department of a bus, like sardines, for more than 20 hours, to the border near Arizona.  The group then walked, for 48 hours, crossing the hot dry desert of southern Arizona.  Along their walk they found two dead bodies; two who failed to make the tough journey. Later, a young girl in Manuel’s group became dehydrated.  She could not continue walking. Her boyfriend carried her on his back until he could no longer continue either. The group was forced to leave them behind, in the hot, dry, endless desert. Manuel never found out if they made it out of the desert alive, or if their dead bodies would be passed by the next group.  Hundreds die every year.

The immigrants came to my classes in the Catholic church to learn about life in the U.S., to learn some English, and to meet others that were in their same situation.  To save money, most live 5 or more to a house, multiple families, each with an extended family waiting back home for a portion of their pay. They do all the hardest jobs, for very little pay.  Those who were arrested and taken away last Tuesday worked in the beef packing industry.  This job is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the U.S.  Many of my students complained of chronic hand pain and back pain.  One student could not move the left side of his body due to an injury at the beef plant.  Another student pleaded for me to help him.  He developed a stomach cancer, possibly caused by the chemicals used in the plant, and could no longer work.  The beef plant, of course, refused to pay him any compensation and he, of course, had no right to demand it. He was "illegal".

I was there 2 years ago, right before Christmas, when the Swift beef plant laid off 800 workers. These workers would not receive any severance pay, any unemployment, any assistance whatsoever. They were "illegals" too, all 800 of them. I watched as the local news stations interviewed the Swift owner for the nightly news. He explained about declining sales and a tough economy, but emphasized that he had organized for local charities to give aid to the laid-off workers.  He had donated $25,000 to the charities, which sounded like a big number but it only amounted to $30 per worker.  This was about the equivalent of half a day’s wage.

The charities offered free English classes and diapers. But these 800 families didn’t need that. They needed to pay the heat bill to survive the cold Colorado winter.  They needed to feed their children until they could find another job.  Several families told me that they were heading off to another state. They were moving, packing everything into their 1980’s model two-door car and hitting the road. Others were going back to Mexico.

Places like Swift benefit from hiring "illegals" because they are cheaper. They don’t get any benefits, and they are much too afraid and intimidated to organize and make demands. The threat of being deported is always present. And Swift knows they are mostly a temporary work force, with a constant flow of new immigrants to replace them. Due to increasing line speeds, repetitive and tedious job tasks, and dangerous machinery, there are inevitably a high number of injuries in these plants. People lose fingers, hands, arms. But illegal immigrants have a hard time claiming any compensation or medical benefits. The beef plant can chew them up and throw them out, and they do. It’s more profitable that way.

Authorities say the raid last Tuesday was meant to capture individuals who were using stolen identities, as if these workers were criminals, robbing people of their identities and causing problems. But everyone in the immigrant community knows this is false. Thousands of immigrants cross the border everyday, and the only way they can hope to get a decent job is by using false documents. This is nothing new, and certainly nothing uncommon. A huge percentage of these immigrant workers use either a fake social security number, or they find a real one to use. Many times they buy them, or borrow one from an acquaintance. For the agents to act like this is something new, or something they are suddenly concerned about, is pretty dubious. And since most "illegals" use a false social security number of some sort, that means there are hundreds of thousands of workers paying into Social Security funds, but none will ever have the right to draw from it.

The more likely reason for the recent raids is to intimidate and scare people. With recent marches and organized action, the Latino community is beginning to voice their concerns and make demands.  Surely these raids will intimidate illegal immigrants everywhere and make them afraid of participating in collective action. Swift and other companies who hire "illegals" certainly don’t mind. They benefit from an intimidated, docile workforce who will put up with abusive conditions and keep quiet. And Swift, of course, pretends that they do not know that the majority of their workforce is "illegal." Since the workers all have documents of some sort, Swift acts like they had no way of knowing. But it doesn’t exactly take a genius to know when someone is not a legal resident, and is using fake documents. Nevertheless, there is no punishment for Swift or other companies who, by hiring "illegal" workers, are the ones who encourage illegal immigration in the first place.

 The consequences of the recent raid are much bigger than most people realize. Since most Americans are totally ignorant of the conditions in which these immigrants live, they don’t understand what a raid like this means for them. Besides the horrible conditions in which they work, taken advantage of and exploited by U.S. corporations, they are being punished on top of that. Thousands of families were torn apart on Tuesday. Wives were left without their husbands, children left without mothers or fathers. Families that depended on the income of these 1200 people, now are left without any form of assistance; no unemployment, no welfare. But, I suppose it doesn’t matter. These people don’t have the same rights as the rest of us. Their families, their children aren’t the same as ours; after all, these people are "illegal."

Chris Carlson is a North American student and activist living in Venezuela.  See his personal blog at: