Last month The Nation had an excellent and infuriating article on the paramilitary assaults and round-ups staged by La Migra at a chain of meat-packing plants across the country.
Working on the meatpacking floor can be a grueling, monotonous, dangerous routine, making thousands of the same cuts or swipes every day, and annual injury and illness rates might run 25 percent or more, but a union job with a wage of $12-$13 an hour, enough to support a family, seems worth the pain and risk.
At least until December 12, the holiday celebrating the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. What materialized in front of the Swift gates that morning was more like a vision of hell. Shortly after 7 am a half-dozen buses rolled up with a small fleet of government vans, which unloaded dozens of heavily armed federal agents backed by riot-clad local police. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents sealed off all entrances and exits and formed a perimeter around the factory. Then others barged inside and started rounding up the whole workforce.
Some of the frightened workers jumped into cattle pens; others hid behind machinery or in closets. Those who tried to run were wrestled to the ground. Sworn statements by some workers allege that the ICE agents used chemical sprays to subdue those who didn’t understand the orders barked at them in English. The plant’s entire workforce was herded into the cafeteria and separated into two groups: those who claimed to be US citizens or legal residents and those who didn’t.
While the Greeley plant was being locked down, more than 1,000 ICE agents simultaneously raided five other Swift factories in Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah and Minnesota. By the end of the day, nearly 1,300 immigrant workers had been taken into custody—about 265 of them from Greeley. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff boasted that the combined raids amounted to the largest workplace enforcement action in history. ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers would later claim that Operation Wagon Train, as the raids were dubbed, dealt a major blow in thewar against illegal immigration.
What nobody, including ICE, can answer is why, if the real targets were those people with stolen Social Security numbers, federal officials didn’t go quietly into the Swift factories and, armed with warrants, simply arrest the suspects. Why the brash paramilitary operation? …
… The aggressiveness of the arrests and what followed have startled many.I was amazed by the force used, by the heavy armament,says Democratic State Representative James Riesberg.Amazed that so many didn’t have the bond hearings they were owed, that so many were held without their location disclosed.
When news of the raids broke, Rodriquez entered the plant but ICE officials prohibited him from getting personal information from the workers to pass on to their families.ICE treated the workers like animals,he says.Didn’t let people eat or drink anything. Didn’t let them go to the bathroom. Wouldn’t let workers use phones to make arrangements for kids in school or at home.He adds,This was something you think you might see on TV, but never did I imagine I would actually live through it.
The Greeley Latino community, about 35 percent of the population, was not totally unprepared for the disaster. Political events of the previous year had spurred community organization and generated vibrant new leadership. As word of the raid flashed on local Spanish-language radio, hundreds of worried family members and protesters converged on the factory gates. Local police mobilized to keep the crowd at bay as their loved ones were handcuffed and loaded by ICE into waiting buses. The militarized sweep hit the community like a hurricane, says 33-year-old Sylvia Martinez, one of Greeley’s most prominent new Latino activists.It’s frightening to see the power that the federal government has to blow through here and leave a shambles,she says as we eat lunch at one of the town’s many Mexican restaurants.This has been our Katrina, a man-made Katrina. There’s no information, no accountability.
And what, you might ask, can we find in the Letters section of the most recent issue (dated April 2, 2007), in response to the obvious injustice of this large-scale assault peaceful and productive workers, followed by shipping them off to holding pens en masse and holding them incommunicado without due process, solely on the basis of their nationality? A protest of the government’s practice of international apartheid, and the assault on immigrant workers by which that practice is enforced? Solidarity with the courageous stands against power taken by the union local and the families of the disappeared?
In a couple of letters, sure. In the numerical majority of letters, no. What we have instead is a gang of comfortable
Progressives whose only thought is to escalate efforts to jail immigrant workers and/or those who offer them work. Here’s a sample:
The game until now has been an elaborate choreography among the employers who need the immigrant workers, the immigrants who want these jobs, the communities who need them, the cattlemen who depend on them and the government whose basic motto has been: Don’t ask, don’t tell,says an immigrant advocate. The employers don’tneedthe immigrant workers. The corporations profit from paying coolie wages [sic!] to the illegals. The communities certainly don’t need them. Many communities are hard-pressed to deal with the exploding immigrant population. The cattlemen depend on the immigrants the same way the corporations do. The cheap labor is a source to be exploited. Product prices would increase if corporations were forced to pay fair wages to US citizens to perform unsavory or labor-intensive jobs. I, for one, would gladly pay more for products made in this country, by citizen labor.
Philip Ratcliffe is, of course, perfectly free right now to find sellers who will certify nativist hiring standards and to pay them more for their products. But he has no business trying to force that policy on the rest of the consumers in the country—let alone to force it on immigrant workers who have done nothing worse than do work for willing employers and customers. It’s also interesting to note the explicit effort to pry the nativist rhetoric of
coolie wages out of Sam Gompers’ cold, dead hands and dust it off for re-use by early 21st century
Progressives. (Also the revival of the rhetorical tactic of labeling entire ethnic groups of workers as
coolie labor, even when the workers you’re proposing to exile from the country are in fact unionized and being paid a living wage). But anyway, in case the racism wasn’t explicit enough for you, though, there is always this one:
Re: Lockdown in Greeley, How Immigration Raids Terrorized a Colorado Town by Marc Cooper [Feb. 26]. Why is The Nation so intent on jamming Latino illegal aliens down the throats of their readers and ignoring the other side of the story? I don’t know anyone who is not in favor of sending these people back home and cracking down on corporate America for hiring them. They are costing taxpayers a fortune while enriching corporate America, and they are changing the fabric of American culture. America is importing poverty, something we have plenty of already, since the Republicans and corporations have been running the country. Immigration needs to be controlled, and we need a balance of people coming in from different countries. There are too many Hispanics and Latinos in the country, and they shouldn’t be rewarded for breaking the law.
Immigrant workers are indeed among the most downtrodden and exploited workers in the country. But that’s not because there is anything wrong with moving from one place to another in order to find work. That’s something that working folks have done throughout all known history, and for very good reasons. It’s precisely because the know-nothing blowhard brigade has criminalized their existence and put them constantly at risk of being jailed or shot. Among the worst of the lot, because they are the most insidious, are those who propose walling off labor at national borders in the name of labor solidarity, and attempted to tie nativist policy in with pseudo-populist economics. But of course international apartheid does nothing to benefit workers as a whole; at the most, it only benefits the most privileged working folks—the American-born workers and those who had the resources or the good luck to secure a visa—at the expense of all those other working folks — dehumanized into an anonymous mass of
poverty by the nativist rhetoric — stuck on the wrong side of the wall. Those who consider native-born American workers more important or more deserving of an opportunity to work without being shot or jailed, just for having been born here, would do well to shut the hell up about the working class and just admit that they are not Leftists but rather belligerent nationalists. The rest of us would do well to dissociate ourselves, as completely as possible, from the crypto-racism and occasionally overt racism of this unwelcome Progressive-era legacy.