The American South was built on the backs of cheap and usually exploited labor. Most of us living here in Philadelphia don’t remember that as recently as the 1930s and the dawn of the Great Depression, our city was one of the world’s great textile-producing cities. But the industry fled en masse to Dixie, where there weren’t pesky unions always demanding fair wages and a safe workplace — leaving Philly with the empty shells of factories that would become graffiti-covered ratholes.
Flash-forward to the 1990s, when America’s Clinton-era economy was booming and suddenly the native-born backbone of the Southern blue-collar workforce — increasingly African American — seemed neither cheap nor docile. In fact, labor organizing among black workers was gaining traction. Then — as described over the weekend in a remarkable Washington Post op-ed by Angela Stuesse, a professor at the University of North Carolina — the region’s massive poultry industry cooked up something new: the Hispanic Project.
Around 1994, flyers in Spanish began appearing in Cuban and other Hispanic neighborhoods in Miami, promising not just work at a chicken-processing plant in rural Mississippi but a free Greyhound bus ride to get there. Over the next generation, the Latinx population of the rural Deep South skyrocketed with the boost from more than 100,000 poultry workers, many of them lured by a recruitment bonus for their friends or family members.
Apparently, few questions were asked. With brutal working conditions, substandard housing, and the bosses’ aversion to any union organizing, undocumented immigration status was a feature, not a bug — a source of constant fear that could be exploited by the bosses to keep the workforce in line.
Flying under the radar for more than two decades, the Hispanic Project crashed in spectacular — and probably inevitable — fashion last week when agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, flooded the zone in rural Mississippi with unannounced raids on a handful of chicken-processing plants that netted 680 arrests. Scores of their children — born on U.S. soil, full-fledged citizens — returned from their first day of school with no idea what had happened to Mommy or Daddy. The shocking scenes of weeping grade-schoolers were so powerful that the ICE raids briefly broke through the Trump-flavored stew of scandal, sex, and shootings to make national news.
Many people looked at the images out of Mississippi and saw the massive scope and the cruelty-is-the-point timing of the ICE raids as the epitome of Donald Trump’s presidency, meant to send jolts of panic through Latinx neighborhoods everywhere, while sparking excitement and even adulation from his xenophobic base of voters. And many people would be exactly right ... but there was also a lot more happening here.
On this brutally hot August day in Morton, Miss., the immigrant-bashing instincts of America’s far right and the exploitative profit-seeking tendencies of the nation’s business oligarchs — which had been at cross-purposes for most of the 21st century — abruptly came together for one awful day of inhumanity. And the future consequences for our Hispanic sisters and brothers could be horrific. To understand what just happened, let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
Billionaire Joseph Grendys is an American food mogul with an exquisite sense of timing. A Chicago native who worked his way up the ranks in a company called Koch Foods until he was able to buy it in the 1990s, Grendys is, by all accounts, neither ostentatious nor especially political, even as his net worth has skyrocketed past $3 billion.
This man whose job is to slaughter more than 12 million chickens every week comes off, perhaps unsurprisingly, as not a romantic. Grendys once described what he does in the most bloodless manner possible — as “the business of converting corn and soybeans into meat protein.” Food safety issues keep him awake at night — because it might cut into profits. His rise into the billionaire ranks came as Koch Foods’ workforce of roughly 14,000 people became increasingly Hispanic; some of them were clearly undocumented, including more than 160 arrested in a 2007 immigration raid at an Ohio plant.
It was during those same years that workers at Koch Foods plant in Morton began to complain of mistreatment, including sexual harassment. One manager, according to the growing list of alleged offenses, groped women from behind, punched employees, or even threw chicken parts at them. Fearful workers also claimed they were extorted by bosses on matters as big as getting a promotion and as small as taking a bathroom break.
“People are afraid to come forward because they think, ‘What will happen if I say something? I’ll be separated from my family, I’ll lose my job,’” the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the company, Cuban immigrant Maria Cazorla said. “They prefer to say nothing and suffer.” Cazorla told the Reuters news service that a manager inappropriately touched her and punched her husband; the husband was challenged on his immigration status and fired in 2010.
Eventually, the complaints from workers were embraced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) during Barack Obama’s presidency and rolled into a new — and slow-moving — lawsuit against Koch Foods. About a year ago, the company settled, paying a $3.75 million penalty and promising other antidiscrimination measures. At the same time, the firm defiantly admitted no wrongdoing and counterclaimed that some of the workers were making false charges to get protected U.S. visa status as whistle-blowers.
Clearly, invoking immigration status was the nuclear option as the stakes rose in Morton. At some point this year, someone made a phone call to ICE.
You know the rest of the story. The timing of the raid — just a few days after a 21-year-old Texan motivated by right-wing rhetoric entered an El Paso Walmart to hunt down Mexicans and killed 22 people — was so awful that even a Trump administration official had to admit it was “unfortunate.” But the “optics” — to invoke that overused media buzzword — were even worse.
“I need my dad ... mommy,” 11-year-old Magdalena Gomez-Jorge cried before a TV camera, in a gym where children who didn’t know the whereabouts of their parents had been brought. “My dad didn’t do nothing. He’s not a criminal.” Federal officials who’d been planning the raids for days gave literally zero thought about what would happen to these children of those they detained and planned to deport. (We’re "not a social service agency,” one ICE official said.) The only point of the enforcement action seemed to be to spark fear among the Latinx community — just like Trump’s archipelago of concentration camps and threatened ICE raids in big cities — and to show toughness to the president’s “Send her back!” base.
But if you do accept at face value this notion that undocumented immigrants working, paying taxes, and raising their U.S.-citizen children are somehow committing a serious crime, then answer this question: Why no criminal charges for Grendys or other top bosses of Koch Foods or its rivals that were raided last week? Or the supervisors whose harassment, as chronicled by workers and the EEOC, seems to suggest they knew their employees were here without authorization.
Maybe that’s because for decades U.S. policy on these matters has been driven less by some kind of rigid Code of Hammurabi reading of immigration law and more by simply what could make the most money for people like Joseph Grendys. The dissonance began in the mid-2000s when George W. Bush sought immigration reform to benefit his corporate patrons, only to be rebuffed by the rising talk-radio-and-Fox-fueled white nationalism of his own party’s core voters.
What happened in Mississippi is terrible because it feels like the convergence of Trumpian white supremacy, where brown and black people are seen as expendable (and not even as people, frankly), and the desire of modern U.S. capitalism to see any kind of American labor force as ultimately expendable. Especially at this special moment in human history when the moral shortcuts of abusing a mostly immigrant workplace are no longer as lucrative as simply replacing them with robots.
Just days after the raid, Koch Foods staged a job fair for new workers, but that may not be the end game. “Labor is becoming more and more of a challenge,” Grendys told the Chicago Tribune in 2014. “The industry needs to constantly look at ways to reinvent itself, to automate more and more and more." Because the best way to deal with those pesky worker harassment claims and their constant demands for a living wage is not to have any workers at all.