Iowa Public Television


Swift Raids Leave a Lasting Impression

posted on March 16, 2007

Saying the immigration debate is overshadowed by the Iraq war, some pro-immigrant activists, including Latino Movement USA, are planning rallies against the war and to demand amnesty of illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, in the last week, immigration officials arrested 36 illegal aliens at an Indiana company and arrested 361 alleged undocumented workers in Massachusetts.

While impacting a labor force, the latest raids have not matched the magnitude of last December's "Operation Wagon Train", where Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers rounded up more than 12-hundred meatpacking plant workers in six states.

Market to Market Producer Andrew Batt reports on how one Midwest town reflects and moves forward, following one such raid that resulted in the abrupt loss of workers and residents.

Swift Raids Leave a Lasting Impression For the nearly 30,000 residents of Marshalltown, IA…December 12, 2006, was a day their town made national headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Sec. Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security: "Now this is not only a case about illegal immigration which is bad enough. It's a case about identity theft and violation of privacy rights and the economic rights of innocent Americans."

One of Marshalltown's largest employers, the Swift & Company meatpacking plant, was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Agents arrested 90 workers believed to have entered the U.S. illegally – some using stolen identification.

Matt Whitaker, U.S. Attorney, Iowa Southern District: "The bottom line is if you want to have the most impact on illegal immigration you're going to go to where those immigrants are finding jobs."

Matt Whitaker is the U.S. Attorney in charge of prosecuting the Marshalltown workers accused of identity theft. Whitaker emphasized that no charges have been brought against Swift but added that the raids have sent a strong message to employers.

Whitaker: "Swift paid $2 an hour more after they realized that we were probably going to go in there and do something about their illegal workforce. I think that would suggest to most Iowans that hey we support higher wages…that we support a legal workforce because it's better for Iowa."

Swift suffered $30 million in lost production in the days surrounding the raids.

Today, more than three months after the raids, the Swift plant in Marshalltown is back to normal. Truckloads of hogs still pull up for processing and a steady stream of workers come and go from the front doors.

But the town is still feeling the aftermath of the largest immigration raid in U.S. history.

Father Jim Miller, Pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church: "This raid didn't do anything good for Marshalltown. They took the workers. They didn't take anyone involved with drugs or gangs. They took the best and that's the sad thing about these raids. They took the best."

Jose Bavella, Marshalltown, IA: "Business is down. Everywhere, business is down…"

Jose Bavella, an eight-year resident of Marshalltown, owns a Hispanic clothing store downtown. He told us his store's revenue fell nearly 75% in the months following the raids as entire families fled town.

Jose Bavella, Marshalltown, IA: "The problem is they don't have papers…"

Bavella's financial downturn is just part of a changing landscape in Marshalltown's Hispanic community. Many other Hispanic-owned business owners wouldn't talk on camera with Market to Market. Babella says part of the reason some owners are hesitant is due to the raids at Swift.

But much of the community does want to discuss the hot-button issue of immigration. In February, Marshalltown held a national immigration summit, hoping to spread information and answer questions.

Ted Kamatchus, Marshall County Sheriff: "The individuals who have come across that border form nothing more than a form of contraband to this country. And that same form of contraband brings us our drugs and could bring us weapons of mass destruction."

Carlos Rios, Executive Director of Immigrant Rights Network for Iowa and Nebraska: "Immigrants are human beings like you and me. They are more than just workers, they are family and members of our society and are an essential part of the fabric of the United States and the future of the United States."

Discussions at the summit covered everything from immigration enforcement and worker rights to creating a temporary worker program. But the ongoing case against workers from the Swift plant was not openly debated at the summit.

Some of the attendees privately accused Swift of bringing the raids upon themselves…..saying they knowingly hired illegal immigrants and even recruited them.

We wanted to bring these accusations to Swift officials and after requests for a television interview was denied, one Swift executive granted a telephone interview.

Sean McHugh, Vice President Public Relations: "Our recruiting efforts consist of what you'd expect of any employer including print, radio and billboards. And in general, nearly all of our applicants come from the immediate geographic area of the facilities. So for outsiders to allege that we conducted ourselves in a way that was outside the law or outside standard business practices…that simply doesn't hold water."

Market to Market: "So the claims that Swift actively recruits on the U.S. – Mexico border are ridiculous?"

McHugh: "….patently ridiculous."

Swift's Vice President of Public Relations, Sean McHugh, staunchly defended business practices. He says that for ten years the company has been part of a voluntary government program that identifies fraudulent documents and illegal immigrants.

But the social security verification program, known as Basic Pilot, failed to prevent illegal immigrants from attaining jobs at Swift plants.

Michael Chertoff, Director of Homeland Security: "Basic pilot is an effective program for identifying cases where people are using a phony social security number or phony names. It is not, however, a perfect cure all…"

Sen. Norm Coleman, R – Minnesota: "We have to have a better way of checking employee verification. Bottom line today is we have a basic pilot program but if you've got somebody using a real social security number in California and at the same time they're using it in Worthington, Minnesota there is a problem and we should know about it."

According to Swift, Basic Pilot is just a sample of flawed government policy. In 2001, the U.S. Justice Department sued Swift & Company for $2.5 million alleging the meat-packing giant had gone too far in questioning the background and documentation of applicants – a policy the government called "document-based discrimination". After two years of negotiations, Swift settled the claim for $200,000, in a combination of civil penalties and back pay.

So what has changed since the raids? Swift executives say the company has not altered its hiring practices and still uses the Basic Pilot Program. President Bush is pushing for Basic Pilot to become mandatory for all employers.

Since the Swift raids, ICE officials have expanded their worksite enforcement efforts to include other labor industries such as construction companies and cleaning services.

And the Democratic-controlled U.S. House and Senate are discussing possible immigration reform. But no timetable has been set for future legislation.

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.

Tags: agriculture immigration industry jobs meat news rural