Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided Swift & Co. meat-processing plants in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Utah last week, arresting 1,282 undocumented workers. It was the largest-ever workplace assault on immigrant workers. But the raids have generated an outpouring of support for the workers and their families, with many calls for a halt to raids and for comprehensive immigration reform that guarantees workers’ rights.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 10,000 Swift workers, said ICE agents marched into the plants with military weapons, terrorizing workers. Families were ripped apart, leaving traumatized children stranded. In some cases parents were transported to detention centers in distant cities and denied the opportunity to make a phone call.
“This kind of action is totally uncalled for,” Mark Lauritsen, UFCW vice president and director of the union’s Food Processing, Packing, and Manufacturing division, said in a statement. “It’s designed to punish workers for working hard every day, contributing to the success of their companies and communities. They are innocent victims in an immigration system that has been hijacked by corporations for the purpose of importing an exploitable workforce.”
“In effect, ICE is criminalizing people for going to work,” he said. “It’s time for the federal government to stop victimizing workers and reform our immigration system.”
The union went to court seeking an immediate federal injunction to stop such attacks on its workers.
More than 1,000 ICE agents raided Swift plants in Greeley, Colo.; Grand Island, Neb.; Cactus, Texas; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minn., on Dec. 12. About 600 of those arrested are Mexican. The others are mostly Guatemalan, Honduran, El Salvadoran, Peruvian, Laotian, Sudanese and Ethiopian. The ICE claimed the raids were part of an investigation into undocumented workers using other people’s identities to secure U.S. jobs.
But Mark Froemke, a Minnesota AFL-CIO executive board member, thinks the real aim was to instill anti-immigrant fear in the public. “It’s obvious that the raids are placating right-wing elements and the entire Bush constituency,” he said.
Froemke, a sugar beet worker in northern Minnesota, went to help build labor/community support for the immigrant workers in Worthington last week. The fear people felt there is hard to comprehend, he said. “It doesn’t really hit you until you’re there.”
In Worthington, a town of 12,000, 230 workers were arrested. Many family members hid or took shelter in churches, fearing they might be seized next. Many others went to the local union hall trying to locate loved ones who were missing.
Among them was Lae Khothasime, 24, a U.S. citizen from Thailand whose fiancé was arrested. Khothasime, mother of two young children, told the World her fiancé, who is from Guatemala, is being held in jail awaiting immigration court.
“He got taken away. I just cried and cried,” she said. She has visited him twice and said she breaks out in tears each time. “He told me to be strong for the kids,” she added.
Mike Potter, president of UFCW Local 1161 in Worthington, said he was “appalled and overwhelmed” by the raids. “People were crying and being handcuffed. It was something I never witnessed or experienced before.”
Potter said the union hall has had over 100 volunteers helping distribute food, locating loved ones, setting up aid funds, supplying holiday gifts and working with churches and community groups assisting the families who were torn apart by the raid. Potter said the entire community is affected, and expressed hope that the new Congress comes up with immigration reform that protects workers’ rights. “I hope nothing like this ever happens again,” he said.
Nallely, one of the volunteers, said people are scared, buying bus tickets and preparing to move out of Worthington because of the raid. “They come here to try and have a better life and work,” she said. “They don’t steal those papers, they have to buy them and then they use them in order to work. All they do is work!”
Local 1161 Secretary-Treasurer Jose Pedro Lira said, “Workers’ families are suffering from being separated. But the churches, the union and the community are united to help these families.” Lira, a U.S. citizen originally from Mexico, has lived in Worthington for 17 years and has worked at the Swift plant for seven of those years. “Immigrants are not criminals, we are not taking jobs away from anyone,” he said.
Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh, speaking by phone from his office, said neither he nor the police department were involved in the raid. He said they wanted to assure the public they would not arrest or turn in undocumented workers to immigration officials.
Oberloh said our immigration laws are broken and until real reform is done all efforts to resolve immigration issues are going to be ineffective.
Froemke, of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, pointed out that the economies of many countries are being exploited through “free trade” agreements that eventually cause hardships for millions of people. “People leave their homeland because of economic desperation and take very difficult jobs here, extremely hard human-busting labor,” he said.
Immigrant workers “want what everybody wants, a job, a decent standard of living and to be part of a community,” Froemke said.
plozano @ pww.org