“I Couldn’t Keep Working There”
More than a tenth of Swift’s Utah workforce was arrested on the day of the raid. But many others slipped through the dragnet. Having little other economic choice, some continued to show up for work at the plant, but others—including some who had been working at the factory for a decade or longer—decided it wasn’t worth the risk. And with that, families that had once been firmly ensconced in the American middle class—those with homes, cars, health insurance and college savings plans for their children—were suddenly struggling to pay their bills.
Take the man in the red-checkered shirt, for instance.
“Red” spent 13 years at Miller’s (as the Hyrum slaughterhouse is known by most, though the Miller family has been out of the business for a long time and the plant is now owned by multinational meat-packing conglomerate JBS).
“I was a meat trimmer. I would trim portions of the cow’s thigh,” Red says. “It was one of the hardest and most difficult jobs at Miller’s, but I really liked doing it. I’ve never been afraid of hard work, and whenever I could, I would work two shifts, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. … Sometimes my wife would get mad because I wasn’t home very much, but I had a dream.”
Red wasn’t living large, but he had a two-story home in a quiet Hyrum neighborhood, not too far from the plant. There were several cars in the dirt driveway, and he always had enough money to pay his family’s modest bills.
“We had enough left over that we could go out to eat once in a while,” he says. “Not all the time, but sometimes when we wanted to.”
Red always knew it could come crashing down. But after more than a decade in northern Utah, he’d become quite comfortable.
Then, on Dec. 12, 2006, everything collapsed.
Red had just begun to work that day when he noticed several supervisors running around frantically.
“We all asked what was going on,” he says. “But no one would say anything. Then finally, someone came in and said that the whole factory had been surrounded by ICE. And one of the supervisors said, ‘Don’t grab any knives—put them all down right now.’ ”
Immediately, Red says, he bowed his head and closed his eyes.
“All I did was pray to God and to the Virgin Mary,” he says. “I prayed to them that I could be spared. I had my family. I had worked here in this country for so long with the dream of giving my children a better life. That’s all I wanted. I prayed and prayed. And then my turn came up.”
The immigration agents told Red—who was using another man’s Social Security number in exchange for funding that man’s child-support payments—that there was an arrest warrant for him in Texas.
“I tried to be as calm as I could,” he says. “I told them, ‘No, that could not be. I’ve never been arrested.’ ”
If there were some sort of mistake, Red told the agents, they should take him away so that it could be sorted out. If not, he said, they should let him get back to work.
The agents let him go.
But Red’s days at Miller’s were numbered. Other plant employees whose undocumented relatives had been arrested and deported were suspicious and angry, Red says. “They said to me, ‘Why did they leave you and take everyone else?’ ”
Red worried that someone would turn him in out of spite. And even if they didn’t, he says, there were constant rumors that ICE would return.
Eventually, it became too much to bear. He left his $14-an-hour job at the plant and never returned.
“I thought about what would happen to my family if something was to happen to me,” Red says. “I couldn’t keep working there.”
That’s precisely the idea behind the attrition-through-enforcement strategies pushed by groups like Washington, D.C.’s Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes a “low-immigration, pro-immigrant” vision of America. The center has been a leading force behind laws in Arizona and other states where legislators have tried, as CIS director Mark Krikorian put it, “to persuade a large share of illegals already here to give up and deport themselves.”
Utah lawmakers incorporated some of those ideas into a law that allows the warrantless arrest of those suspected of being in the country illegally. The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed suit to block implementation of that law, arguing that states are constitutionally subservient to the federal government when it comes to immigration enforcement.
Utah’s political leaders have rejected that notion, adding their voices to a growing chorus of state leaders who say the federal government has renounced its role because Congress has failed to act.
Regardless of how the courts rule, though, it’s clear that even the toughest laws won’t catch everyone. Proponents say they don’t have to: They simply have to make it harder for illegal immigrants to live comfortably.
Indeed, life has been unsparingly difficult ever since Red left Miller’s.
“It’s been such a struggle, a tremendous struggle,” he says. “It is very hard to find work. People mistreat you. They pay you less. They abuse you and tell you that if you want to work, you’ll have to take a pay cut.
“In Mexico, we have a saying: ‘The only thing that hasn’t happened to us yet is that a dog hasn’t pissed on us.’ This is our life. This is the life of the wetbacks in this country. It has come down to the point that we have had to ask people to help us.”
And with those words, Red begins to shake and cry.
His wife rises from her seat beside him and ducks into the kitchen, emerging with a ring-necked dove cupped in her hands.
She hands it to her husband like a parent giving a child a teddy bear.
Red holds the bird gently in his hands, then lifts it to his shoulder.
“I found it at a worksite,” he says. “People told me it would fly away, but it never tried to escape.”
“I Knew I Would Be Returning”
Red has considered leaving the United States, but it’s never much more than a fleeting thought.
“There is nothing for us in Michoacan,” Red says of the drug-cartel-controlled state in southern Mexico where he grew up, and from where many of the workers at Miller’s hail. “There is only poverty and violence. Many people live in cardboard houses. My brother was shot. My sister was robbed in the convenience store where she works. It’s hard to live here, but there is no money and no work in Mexico, either.”
Therein lies the fallacy of attrition through enforcement. It ignores the fact that those with the option of creating a decent life for themselves in their home nations had little reason to come to the United States illegally in the first place.
“The draw of coming to America is as strong as ever in Central America, where all of the countries, save Costa Rica and Panama, are failed states that offer no real life to 99 percent of their populations,” says Angel Reyes, a Dallas attorney whose firm filed suit against Swift, alleging an intentional pattern of replacing legal residents with undocumented workers in its factories. The complaint was settled confidentially out of court. “Add the drug problem, and just about every Central American with the nerve to come to America will come to America.”
And when they’re deported, they’ll come back.
That’s what “Marta” did.