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New INS operation targets Nebraska meat industry

NCR Staff
Omaha, Neb.

In an unusual show of agreement among groups often at odds, immigrant, church, business and union leaders are voicing opposition to a new program targeting illegal immigrants employed in Nebraska’s meatpacking industry.

Initially called Operation Prime Beef when it was announced in September by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the program is designed to root out undocumented workers by a comprehensive investigation of the employment eligibility records of all meatpacking employees in Nebraska. Critics, arguing from different points of view, charge that such sweeping measures would severely disrupt immigrant communities, meatpacking plants and Nebraska’s economy.

Community leaders have also said that the program, by targeting an industry that is highly reliant on Mexican and Central American immigrant labor, is racist and anti-immigrant.

The program is “a new standard of making a human being be unwanted, unappreciated, undesired, unwelcome and unloved,” said a statement from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the predominantly Hispanic area of South Omaha.

The INS said the program, now called Operation Vanguard following protests from some who saw the “Prime Beef” name as dehumanizing and offensive, is “a shift in the way the INS approaches the problem of unauthorized workers in Nebraska’s meatpacking industry.”

Instead of occasional raids on plants, “the agency is aiming to remove the magnet that initially draws them to the Midwest -- employment.”

The INS estimates that magnet has drawn at least 25 percent of the Nebraska meatpacking work force from undocumented immigrants. Operation Vanguard, by targeting every Nebraska meat processing plant during a four-month period, hopes to “freeze out” the illegal workers it does not catch. Plants in Council Bluffs and Sioux City, Iowa, are also included in the INS program.

Removing the magnet

Even INS officials acknowledge, however, that undocumented workers scared off by Operation Vanguard will not return to their countries of origin. For the INS, removing the magnet of employment in the meatpacking industry, rather than arresting and deporting individuals, is the goal of Operation Vanguard.

“It is expected that many employees who lack valid work authorization will resign prior to the INS visit,” the INS said in its September announcement. However, when interviews are scheduled with employees who stay, “the INS may apprehend undocumented aliens encountered during the visit.”

If successful, the program could be expanded to meatpacking plants in the surrounding states of Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota. “The ultimate objective is to open up jobs for people working legally,” Jerry Heinauer, director of the INS district office in Omaha, told NCR.

But some say finding those legal workers will be tough for meatpacking jobs that are difficult and dangerous, and in a state where unemployment is at about 3 percent.

One meatpacking manager told The Omaha World-Herald, “If they’ve got a pulse, we’ll take an application. We’re really strapped from time to time. We’ve got such high turnover, as much of our industry does.”

The American Meat Institute, a national organization representing meat slaughterers and processors and their suppliers, said that turnover requires employers to hire two or three trainees to fill one job vacancy long-term.

Critics also say Operation Vanguard will negatively affect the economies of Nebraska and Iowa, both heavily dependent on agriculture. Beyond the plants directly involved, consequences of the operation could reach into related businesses, from livestock and grain producers to truckers.

“It does surprise me that the state of Nebraska is not more incensed,” said a meatpacking industry official, who requested anonymity. “If the INS is right and 25 percent of the industry’s workers are illegal, if production of beef subsides by 25 percent, it would show up Monday morning -- everything will curtail by 25 percent.”

In December, 103 meatpacking companies in Nebraska and Western Iowa turned over their employee records under subpoena. After review, the INS said it will compile a list for each facility noting fraudulent documents, present them to employers and in March, schedule appointments at plants to talk with employees with suspect papers. Arrests might occur at that time, the INS said.

While the INS contends that Operation Vanguard will be less stressful or disruptive than the previous strategy of unannounced occasional raids, Sasha Khokha of the National Network for Immigration and Refugee Rights said that new enforcement tactics will have the same consequences. “They may not be as aggressive or as visible, but they lead to many of the same kinds of civil rights concerns and traumas,” she said.

The network is particularly concerned with Nebraska, where the immigrant population has rapidly expanded in the past 10 years but where few advocacy groups are active. The network has followed local Nebraska activists grappling with Operation Vanguard and encouraged them to share their experience with other areas that may soon be facing the same situation. “The mobilization seen [in Nebraska] has been quite incredible considering there hasn’t been a previously established movement for immigrant rights,” Khokha said.

Nebraska immigration activists are on the lookout for any discriminatory practices by plant supervisors in the implementation of Operation Vanguard.

“We concluded we could not stop it up-front,” said Milo Mumgaard, executive director of the Lincoln-based Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest. “But if in the implementation the problems that we predicted show up, it’s still possible to make a legal point here.”

The American Meat Institute has questioned why Operation Vanguard has been implemented in Nebraska before companies in that state have access to INS database screening tools such as the Employment Verification Pilots and Basic Pilot. The pilot programs have been introduced in only five states.

Tools for screening

“Our industry wants a stable, legal work force,” said Sara Lilygren, the institute’s senior vice president for legislative and public affairs. “We’re in support of tools for screening. That’s the place, at the point of hire, instead of investing months of training and after the workers’ families settle in, only to find out their documents aren’t square.”

Nebraska’s congressional delegation and senators have asked the INS to expand the Basic Pilot program into Nebraska. Heinauer told NCR in early January that Basic Pilot may be introduced to Nebraska within a month.

While the INS has slowed its original time frame, beginning the process two months later than first announced, there have been no other changes to the basic elements of the program, Lilygren said.

“Despite almost universal concern about the program, the INS is unwilling to modify it,” Lilygren told NCR. “They have said in writing that they really want this to be a partnership with the industry, and we think that’s wonderful -- except that we haven’t seen the partnership part of it yet.”

Lourdes Gouveia, associate professor of sociology and director of Chicano-Latino studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said that in the end, the cost is going to fall on the workers. “The big companies -- IPB, ConAgra, Cargill -- will be able to withstand the turmoil just fine. The cost will be in the short-run for them,” she said. “Smaller packers will not be able to withstand it. They will close and release workers to work in the big three,” where, Gouveia said, lack of competition for employees will cause working conditions to deteriorate.

“Whatever happens at the end, packers will not bear the brunt,” said Gouveia, who is working on a book about immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry. “Packers will find some kind of accommodation with the INS. What congresspeople and the INS fail to really understand is the short- and long-term costs to families and communities.”

Gouveia said that the INS is enforcing “bad laws passed by unthinking congresspeople,” who are responding to public opinion that unfairly connects undocumented Hispanic workers to rising crime. Lawmakers “respond quickly to political pressures and voices about crime and they connect these issues very poorly,” she said.

“It’s racism when people lump hardworking foreign nationals with criminal elements,” Gouveia said.

INS officials respond that the agency’s actions are based on whether a person has broken the law, not on ethnicity.

That most of the undocumented workers in the meatpacking industry are Hispanic “is a fact,” Heinauer said at a community meeting Dec. 16, 1998, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “It’s nothing we can shy away from.”

“Regardless of the INS’s intentions,” the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a letter to the agency, “most meatpacking workers in Nebraska will perceive Operation Prime Beef as a thinly disguised attack on Latino workers.”

The union noted that the program will have a “devastating impact” on thousands of union members in the state, the majority of whom are Hispanic immigrants. “Operation Prime Beef will surely cause many documented immigrant workers who are lawfully in the country -- as well as unauthorized immigrant workers -- to quit their jobs, pack up their families and belongings, leave their communities and flee to another region of the country.”

According to Lourdes Chavez-Madera, a leader in the Omaha Hispanic community, people were leaving their jobs after the first reports of Operation Vanguard came out in the local media. “The CEOs at packing plants told them not to leave their jobs until told to,” said Chavez-Madera, who assists immigrants with citizenship and residency paperwork.

Other workers are working up to 15 hours a day, trying to make as much money as possible before the INS comes in March.

“People feel more uneasy,” said Chavez-Madera, a native of Durango, Mexico, who became a legal resident in 1990. “They think their time is coming near to leave Omaha or the country. People talk and they’re afraid. These are people who have kids that were born here.”

However, she said, their first option will be to seek work in another industry. “Their last choice is to leave the country,” she said. “They’ll stay around as long as they can.”

Rethinking the laws

Immigration advocates say the solutions to the problems posed by Operation Vanguard are not found in better screening tools for companies or a return to sporadic INS raids but in rethinking the laws that the INS is enforcing.

“For me it’s not an INS problem -- they’re doing what Congress asked them to do,” said Fr. Stanley Kasun, associate pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “My problem is with Congress, that they have given the INS this power and that the laws have permitted this to happen.”

The laws should allow workers to work legally, activists say. “They need to give amnesty to those who are here and temporary visas for those who want to come for a couple of years,” Gouveia said. “It would be win-win for the industry, the people and Mexico, with workers going back and investing in Mexico to eliminate the need for immigration.”

However, Gouveia said, working conditions, pay and benefits will need to improve in order to attract legal workers. More strict enforcement of labor laws would reduce the incentive to hire undocumented workers, she said.

“Once you begin to implement those laws, the incentive for at least a portion of native workers to accept jobs in those plants improves,” she said.

In addition to more rigorous enforcement by the Department of Labor, critics say the INS should focus its efforts on criminal activity such as drug-smuggling rather than targeting working people. According to Mumgaard, the Justice Department has handed down guidelines to the INS, calling on it “to turn the focus of enforcement to raids involving immigrant smuggling, human rights abuses and more egregious violations.”

Operation Vanguard is not in keeping with those priorities, he said. “Uprooting workers and families who may have been here for years is, arguably, an enforcement obligation,” Mumgaard said. “It is hardly a priority.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999