It was El Dia de Guadalupe, a day for feasts and celebration for millions of Catholics—and a reminder that even the lowliest peasant can be an instrument for the greatest of miracles.
But now, among many in Cache County, Dec. 12 is a day associated with horror and heartbreak.
It is el día que esta esperanza se murió.
The day that hope died.
“It’s like a local Sept. 11,” says Norma Martinez, director of the Multicultural Center of Cache County, which served as a community crisis center of sorts on that day five years ago, when scores of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept into northern Utah and spirited away 154 workers from the E.A. Miller meatpacking plant in Hyrum. “You remember where you were, where you were sitting, what you were doing—and you’ll never forget.”
Perhaps that’s because the raid never really ended. Sure, the black-jacketed federal agents came and went, but their impact is still being felt in this community. Five years later, the raids still induce overwhelming emotional reactions. Grown men shake in fear. Women break down in tears. Children wake at night, screaming for their mothers and their fathers.
The rest of us must ask: For what?
The answer: Not much.
Today, many of those who were arrested in the raids are back in Cache County, living deeper in the shadows and closer to the edge of desperation. Families that were once working class are now more reliant than ever before on the community’s social safety net. Many of the criminal cases filed in the wake of the raids have been left unresolved in the Cache County District Attorney’s Office. The meatpacking plant, one of the county’s largest employers for generations, has not returned to the employment levels it enjoyed in the mid-2000s—and is now leaning on state taxpayers to help it grow. Business owners are still caught between federal laws that make it illegal to profile applicants and hire undocumented laborers. An expected army of identity-theft victims failed to materialize. A very simple, very exploitative arrangement that permits undocumented workers to find jobs continues unchecked.
And, in the least surprising development of them all, Congress has utterly failed to act.
Operation Wagon Train
It was a frigid Wednesday morning. As the sun came up over the craggy opening of Blacksmith Fork Canyon, day-shift workers checked into the plant, donned butcher vests and protective gloves, and set about the slaughter. As they did, ICE agents quietly gathered in staging areas, donned bulletproof vests and handguns, and prepared to make history.
They surrounded the facility, charged in and ordered managers to halt operations—granting a temporary stay of execution to dozens of cows serpentining up a ramp on the factory’s east side.
Some workers contend that ICE used a blatantly unconstitutional scheme for determining whom to interrogate: Light-skinned people were put in one line and dismissed; darker-skinned people were put in another line for questioning.
The raid was one of six “worksite enforcement actions” on plants owned by meatpacking giant Swift & Co. scattered about the United States in the single-day, multi-jurisdictional dragnet dubbed “Operation Wagon Train.”
At a news conference a day after the raids, then- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his agents weren’t concerned with just illegal immigration.
“The evidence we uncovered indicates that hundreds of Swift workers illegally assumed the identities of U.S. citizens, using stolen or fraudulently acquired Social Security numbers and other identity documents, which they used to get jobs at Swift facilities,” said the secretary—who cut his legal chops prosecuting mobsters alongside Rudy Giuliani in Manhattan.
“This is not only a case about illegal immigration, which is bad enough,” Chertoff said. “It’s a case about identity theft in violation of the privacy rights and the economic rights of innocent Americans.”
Standing next to Chertoff at the conference was Cache County Attorney George Daines.
Daines would later grow furious with the feds following an FBI investigation into allegations that he coerced witnesses during a sexual assault trial. At the time, though, Daines was downright chummy with his new friends in Washington, boasting that the cases he’d been handed by ICE were a “slam dunk.”
But not everyone was so impressed with Chertoff’s approach.
Left to Clean Up the Pieces
ICE spent months getting ready for the raids, which resulted in the arrests of nearly 1,300 people nationwide. But the G-men apparently hadn’t spent much time planning for what to do about the thousands of family members, including children and elderly individuals, who were dependent on those swept up in the operation.
What resulted, Martinez says, was nothing short of a humanitarian crisis—beginning with scores of children who arrived home from school to find their mothers and fathers gone.
ICE officials say they asked those who were arrested where they lived and whether they had any children at home. Critics say that may have been a well-intentioned query, but it was certainly naive, as it was unlikely that any of the arrested individuals were going to give up their families to La Migra.
“Two or three days after it happened, the telephone rang,” says Martinez, then a Utah State University student who was volunteering at the multicultural center. “The guy who was the director back then answered the phone, and his voice lowered, and you could tell then that he was talking to a child. Then, almost immediately, he started to choke up.”
On the other end of the line was a 7-year-old boy. He hadn’t seen his mother for several days and was wondering where she was.
“That moment was just so intense,” Martinez says, lifting her dark-rimmed glasses to wipe away a tear. “He didn’t even know his address—and who knows how he got our number. How were we going to help him?”
Five years on, Logan Mayor Randy Watts is still steaming.
Immigration agents “came in, broke apart a bunch of families and left the community cleaning up the pieces,” he says.
Watts is proud of how his city, located just a few minutes north of Hyrum, responded.
“The community rallied; it had to rally, and it did,” he says. “These were people who were living paycheck to paycheck, and all of a sudden, the breadwinner was gone. All of the churches, all of the denominations, the teachers at the schools—everyone all of a sudden saw this need and reacted.”
A contractor by trade, Watts understands the need to prevent companies from using illegal labor to depress wages.
But ICE’s approach? “I think it was distasteful,” he says.
Hyrum Mayor Dean Howard has a slightly different perspective. In a phone interview, he said the raid “affected some individuals, but really didn’t affect the community as a whole.”
So did he support the raid?
“I wasn’t in favor of it,” Howard said.
Pressed to elaborate, Howard declined. And pressed again, he hung up.
His response makes plain one of the fundamental problems with the way immigration has been politicized by many American conservatives: Compassion is all too often seen as weakness.
“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.
Sobbing as she sat in the Park City jail—one of several regional detention centers where ICE sent arrestees on the night of the raid—the young mother made a promise to herself. “Of course I knew I would be returning after I was deported,” she says. “I could not be away from my children.”
She spent two weeks in Park City, then two more in an immigration detention center in Arizona, before being released in the border town of Nogales. From there, Marta made her way down to Michoacan, staying just long enough to gather the money to hire a coyote to guide her back across the border.
She was back in Hyrum in a matter of months, but life was never the same.
Marta survived on odd jobs for several years. Finally, this spring, she found work at a restaurant where she makes $4 less per hour than she did at Miller’s.
“I’m scared to be out of the house,” she says, sobbing. “I go to work, and then I come back right away. I am afraid I will be picked up again.”
Like Red, she has considered returning to Mexico. And like Red, she has decided to stay.
But she is woefully delinquent on her bills. “About a year ago, we were about a year behind on our rent,” she says. “Now, I’m not even sure how far behind we are.”
Reyes, the Dallas attorney, estimated that 50 percent of those who were deported as a result of the Swift raids have since returned.
Rolando Murillo, a businessman and advocate for immigrants in Cache County, figures that estimate might be on the low side. “I’d say 50 percent of those deported from here have returned to Cache County,” he says. And others have returned, he says, just not to northern Utah.
“Think about that,” Murillo says. “All the money that was spent. They sent hundreds of ICE agents here and to places all across the United States. They spent months planning. Then they had to put people in jail for weeks and months at a time. You know what that costs? Then the prosecutions. All for what?”
Tony Baird, Cache County’s chief prosecuting attorney, rejects the notion that the cases he prosecuted were in any way meaningless. Baird led a team of attorneys that spent hundreds of hours on the Swift cases. Because some of the defendants were able to secure pre-trial release and then fled, many of the cases have yet to be resolved.
The stories of illegal workers caught in the middle of America’s broken immigration policy “may be compelling,” Baird says, “but I have to deal with the victims who are trying to erase all of these records that are not their own, who have to deal with Social Security and the IRS to try to recover their identities. … So, more compelling to me are these poor victims of identity fraud.”
Cache County victims advocate Terryl Warner agrees. “There were definitely some true victims,” she says.
But not nearly as many as she had expected.
“We went into this thinking we would find all these victims of identity theft,” Warner says. “But quite a few of the people were inmates who were very aware that their identity was being used. They had two, three, four people using their Social Security number—and all that time, all this money is going into their Social Security accounts.”
Not to mention their bank accounts. For the privilege of using these cards, undocumented workers sometimes pay hundreds of dollars a month, often in the form of automatically deducted car payments.
Five years after the Swift raids brought this brand of exploitation to light, ICE still hasn’t figured out how to put a stop to identity “rentals.”
While ICE has deported nearly 30,000 people over the past four years in the four-state region headquartered in Salt Lake City, the agency has made very few busts of anyone knowingly selling their papers.
“The fact is that they quickly deny it,” says Jonathan Lines, assistant special agent in charge of the ICE office of investigations in Salt Lake City. “Without that evidence, we’re hard-pressed to get a case accepted for prosecution.”
Lines noted that ICE has several new initiatives to “help businesses reduce the likelihood that they’ll be forced to let go a significant percentage of their workforce” as a result of a federal action.
Among the new programs is IMAGE—the ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers initiative—intended to help employers enhance their ability to detect fraudulent documents.
“What we like to do up front is training—assisting them in establishing practices to detect unlawful employment before they fall prey to it,” Lines says.
But he doesn’t do much of that. Although the program has been around since before the raid, no businesses in Utah are enrolled.
That might be because of the real or perceived pointlessness of federal efforts to help employers. In 2008, Utah legislators passed a bill that required employers to verify their employees’ status by using the same system that Swift was using before the raids that cost the company almost a quarter of its meatpacking labor force.
The federal programs have proven particularly ineffective at catching those who are renting identification from others in their local community.
That’s how “Joanie” has managed to continue her employment at Miller’s.
“The person whose papers I use doesn’t work,” she says. “I work for her—and that works out for both of us, although it is tough for me to survive on just under half of my wage.”
Someday, Joanie figures, ICE will catch up to her. “And then I’ll be a criminal, and she’ll be the victim—but that’s not really the way it is.”
Standing in freezing temperatures in the packed corrals besides the Miller’s plant, a middle-age Hispanic man in thick brown coveralls snapped a plastic flag at a herd of cows, compelling the animals up a ramp where, over the next hour, they would be killed, gutted, butchered and packaged for delivery to supermarkets across the country.
In a small, warm guard station next to the corrals, a jovial, gray-haired, white security officer hands out application forms to those who come to inquire about jobs. The unemployment rate nationwide may be 9 percent, but the guard always has a crisp stack of applications on hand—the slaughterhouse is almost always hiring.
“People talk a lot about how these are jobs that were once done by American citizens, and that’s true,” Murillo says. “But what they don’t realize is that there is a dial inside that factory that controls how fast the belts move. … The pace at which meat moves though that factory is so much higher today than it was in those days.”
It’s harsh, physically intense and sometimes dangerous work, Murillo says—and non-immigrant workers simply aren’t accustomed to such hardship.
“They don’t last,” he says. “I knew one young man, he was a football player. Really big. Really strong. He lasted six months, and he was really proud of that. He told me, ‘I am the white guy who lasted the longest.’ ”
The company has acknowledged workforce turnover of 40 percent per year. Workers and union officials have estimated that it could be as high as 70 percent.
Keeping anything resembling a stable workforce in the plant after the raids has meant drawing a constant stream of new workers from other communities of desperation. In the past few years, that’s meant hiring from Salt Lake City’s ever- increasing—and extremely under- employed—population of refugees.
But that doesn’t appear to have been enough to return the plant to its pre-raid employment strength of 1,100 workers.
In 2010, the plant’s owners approached Gov. Gary Herbert’s office with a request for a tax subsidy for expansion. After reviewing the application, Herbert’s staff approved a $1.7 million post-performance tax rebate so the factory could grow its employee roster from “nearly 1,000” workers.
Michael Sullivan, the director of communications for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, stressed that the company was not just backfilling its workforce—it was investing $30 million into a new addition to the Hyrum plant, and that the company had committed to not just returning to pre-raid strength, but to creating several hundred additional jobs, each paying $28,000 or more a year.
“Plus they must have full benefits, health insurance, vacation, all that good stuff,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan says the company, which runs meat-processing plants across the United States, had other options for expansion. And, he says, JBS—which owns Swift & Co.—got a tougher look than most other applicants, given its history.
But Sullivan says his office doesn’t have a mechanism to determine whether the JBS workers have legitimate documents. That, he says, is a job for the feds.
Verification vs. Discrimination
It’s hard to say how many of the Hyrum slaughterhouse’s workers are still using fraudulent documents. And JBS officials tread carefully around the subject.
“We hire individuals who we believe to be authorized to work, and we have always done so,” says company spokeswoman Margaret McDonald.
McDonald says the company is still caught between verification and anti-discrimination. In 2002, she noted, the Department of Justice tried to levy a $2.5 million fine against the company for digging too deeply into the status of new hires. Five years later, the company was targeted in the raids because Department of Homeland Security officials said it hadn’t done enough to keep illegal workers off its payroll. The raids cost the company tens of millions of dollars in lost production, sales and new hiring costs.
And it’s not inconceivable that ICE could be back.
In 2010, ICE initiated nearly 2,750 cases against businesses—more than doubling the number in 2008. But today the agency’s enforcement efforts are decidedly lower-profile. While businesses are still targeted for investigation, those suspected of using illegal labor are more likely to be hit with forced audits and fines.
That’s in part because ICE’s priorities have shifted over the past five years toward the identification and deportation of criminals.
The government has deported more than 400,000 individuals in each of the past three years—about half involving those convicted of criminal offenses. “We want to make sure to remove from our communities the most dangerous individuals—those who pose the most imminent threat,” Lines says.
The other half? Lines argues that many of them are criminals, too.
“We will seek to criminally prosecute where we can—but if we don’t have sufficient evidence to bring a criminal case, we will look at using our administrative immigration authority to remove that person,” he says.
Has ICE recognized the fruitlessness of its raid policy? Officials won’t go that far.
But today, Lines says, planning for the humanitarian needs that come in the wake of an enforcement action “is a very significant part of our operation planning. We understand that these worksite- enforcement actions do affect real lives.
“I would hope and think that we can hone and refine our skills,” he says. “I do think we are getting better.”
That may be a rather lukewarm acknowledgment of the Swift raid legacy.
But after five years, it’s something.
Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University.