Packing Meat

Categories: Cover Story

One morning in March, the world's forces of globalization, migration and economic inequity collided in a split second on the balcony of a Best Western in the Texas Panhandle. There, bubbling away outside the doors of three motel rooms, was a line of Crock Pots. Beside one was a small, dark man squatt ing as he stirred beef stew. He told me in pidgin English that he'd come from the Philippines to work at a nearby oil refinery. The Best Western he calls home is outside the tiny town of Cactus which we shine a light on in this week's cover feature "Cheaper Cuts." It's the story of how American-born and illegal immigrant workers were treated at the Swift & Co. beef plant raided by federal agents in December.

Cactus and nearby surrounding towns are home to a strange mix of folks: fathers and sons in matching spurs and cowboy hats, Halliburton workers in red suits, Hispanic families who have lived there for decades, and countless immigrants from Latin America and even Asia who trekked or sailed thousands of miles to arrive at the prairie outpost.

The day I met the Filipino with his Crock Pot, I wound up in a Cactus Laundromat attempting to interview Mayan Guatemalans who spoke only their native dialect. I once lived in Guatemala and speak Spanish, but I never got around to learning Quiche. So, I resorted to charades. A tiny woman with gold star inlays on her front teeth — a popular fashion in highland Guatemala -- managed to communicate that she'd come to Texas with her husband two years before and that he still works at the plant. I'd heard that since the raids, which led to the arrests of nearly 300 illegal immigrants and the prosecution of dozens on identity theft charges, most of the Guatemalans had vanished. But I met more Guatemalan women whose husbands still worked at Swift, as well as a few men. Most were terrified of getting deported. All were tightlipped about the plant's conditions, described by former employees in our feature as brutal, at best. The Central Americans had risked their lives to get there, and they were just glad to have work.

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They weren't the only ones. I met several people who had recently come to Cactus to take jobs at the beleaguered plant, which launched an advertising campaign after losing a huge chunk of its workforce. Felipe Navarro, a legal resident from Mexico, told me he was happy with the conditions at Swift. "It's great compared to where I worked before," he said in Spanish. Then he pulled up his sleeve to reveal a horribly disfigured hand and arm. He'd been badly burned while boiling pig meat at a pork processing plant. Pork plants are considered to have the worst conditions in the meat industry. It's all relative, I guess.

It's not just immigrants arriving in search of work. At what seemed to be Cactus' s only playground, I met 25-year-old Armando Lincoln , who was watching his nieces and nephews. He'd come to Cactus from Brownsville to get a job at the beef plant, but when he applied, he was told his hearing wasn't good enough. He thinks the real reason is that his last name is English (he described his grandfather as a "tall white man"), and the company is still skittish since the hundreds of illegal workers arrested had been using stolen IDs and social security numbers. His reaction when he was sent home from the plant? "I have to be illegal for you to hire me?" he thought.

When it comes to Swift and to immigration in general, everyone has a complaint. The company's is that it's impossible to ensure employees are in the country legally. As for Swift's claims that it did its best to follow the law, read "Cheaper Cuts," and see what you think. -Megan Feldman


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