The callous cruelty of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was on full display when the agency rounded up 680 immigrant workers at seven chicken processing plants across Mississippi on August 7. The raids, possibly the largest ever, inflicted mayhem on families on the first day of the school year, with the clear goal of instilling terror. News stations filmed children like Magdalena sobbing, “I need my dad! He’s not a criminal!” The dragnet came just four days after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, aimed against “Mexicans,” in which a white nationalist killed 22 people.
The companies which hired the undocumented immigrants did so because their labor was sorely needed. Many of the people who were arrested have lived in their communities for decades. So why were they targeted now? Because they were fighting for their rights as workers.
Punishment for organizing. It’s no coincidence that two of the raided plants are unionized, with employees belonging to United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1529.
UFCW is the largest private-sector union in the country. Mississippi is a so-called “right to work” state, where union membership is optional even for employees covered by collective bargaining agreements. This makes union organizing more difficult. Only 5.1 percent of workers in the state belonged to unions in 2018.
The sweeps were also meant to send a threatening message to workers organizing against racist and sexist abuse on the job. A little more than a year ago, Latina and Latino employees at the union plant in Morton won a $3.75 million settlement with Koch Foods (not related to the Koch brothers notorious for funding the far right). These workers had fought for eight years against sexual harassment, discrimination based on race and national origin, and retaliation against those who lodged complaints. The suit was brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
When outrage was expressed about the timing of the raids, coming as they did right after the El Paso massacre, officials answered that they had been planned for over a year. If true, this puts the start of the “criminal investigation” at the time the Koch employees won their victory.
In 2016, Koch Foods also paid thousands of dollars in fines to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for safety violations that severely injured its workers.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined the company between 2010 and 2017 over complaints that it was using its market power to drive Black farmers out of business.
Another of the companies whose sites were hit is Peco Foods. In 2012, it settled a complaint by employees over forced and unpaid overtime. Since OSHA fined it in 2015 for dangerous practices, the agency has investigated it five more times.
In June 2018, three Fresh Mark meatpacking plants in Ohio also represented by UFCW were raided. One had been cited by OSHA the previous week for safety violations that killed a Latino worker.
Notably, corporations rarely get slapped with penalties as a result of these sweeps. So far, the Mississippi businesses face no charges. It is only the workers who suffer.
This year’s huge attack on workers in Mississippi is the latest in a long string of anti-immigrant operations that are meant to sow fear and discourage fights for justice and are intensifying over time. As Sarah Tucker, the executive assistant to the secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, put it, “Employers are weaponizing … ICE raids against employees who stand up for themselves and their rights as working people in this country.”
Integral part of the U.S. working class. Alongside increasing raids and deportations, labor protections for foreign-born workers are being eroded year by year — just as they are for all U.S. workers.
For instance, changes were recently made to two visa programs set up to protect immigrant workers from exploitation. U Visas are for immigrants who suffer sexual assault, domestic violence or mental or physical abuse, including on the job. T Visas are for those who report labor trafficking. These programs have protected people from deportation while their complaints are investigated, with the possibility of permanent residency status being granted for those who apply.
In July, the government reported that applications for these visas will no longer be handled by the Labor Department, but will be turned directly over to law enforcement or ICE to determine whether a crime has been committed. And applicants can be deported immediately.
The Trump administration is also trying to decertify the National Association of Immigration Judges, which has condemned the president’s attempts to speed up deportation cases and limit the authority of the courts.
Trump and his ruling-class brethren, past and present, gain multiple benefits from the special oppression of immigrants. In the area of sheer money-grubbing, their super-exploitation of newcomers means that they are able to hold down wages and conditions for all workers. Then, by scapegoating immigrants for the hardships and insecurity native-born workers face, they divide the working class against itself and sap its power, just as they do with sexism, racism, etc.
Moreover, the powers-that-be are threatened by the historically militant role of immigrants. This has been clear from the earliest days of the U.S. labor movement, when European refugees fleeing poverty and persecution formed the backbone of radical organizations. And it continues to be demonstrated today, as immigrants and refugees from Latin America and all over the world lead fights by janitors, hotel workers, nurses, restaurant employees, and many other workers in both the public and private sectors.
It is in the interest of all workers to stand in solidarity with their immigrant sisters and brothers, who bring much-needed vibrancy to a U.S. labor movement overdue for revitalization.
So it is heartening that in many cases immigrant workers are finding broad support. In Mississippi, for example, unions are defending their members and community organizations are mobilizing to help the victims of the raids. Donations are being solicited by United Latinos of the UFCW and the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance on their Facebook pages. Statements of support have poured out from labor organizations including the AFL-CIO, Painters Union, Teamsters, Communication Workers of America, National Education Association, and Federation of American Teachers.
Hopefully, actions like these will turn out to be steps in building the aggressive defense of immigrant workers that, at its core, is crucial for the defense of every worker.