At a Texas meatpacking plant, jobs Americans won't take
CACTUS, Texas - The DJs at the Spanish-language radio stations gave warnings whenever Immigration and Customs Enforcement came around. "Be careful out there," they'd say. "The relatives are in town."
Not on the day of the Big Raid. Nothing leaked out. State police sealed off the highways in and out of town. ICE agents came with a fleet of empty buses and left with them full.
Their target that day was the huge, steam-billowing beef plant here on the high plains of the Texas Panhandle, owned then by meatpacking giant Swift & Co. "Everyone on the production floor was shouting, 'La Migra! La Migra!' " Monica Loya, a former plant worker, recalled. "There were people hiding behind machinery, in boxes, even in the carcasses."
Operation Wagon Train hit Swift & Co. plants in six states on Dec. 12, 2006, arresting nearly 1,300 workers. In tiny Cactus, 300 were taken into custody - about 10 percent of the town's population. It was the largest workplace raid in U.S. history.
Cactus and surrounding Moore County have bounced back from the raid, and the plant today is once more thriving, shipping steaks to Walmart and hamburger meat to Burger King. But finding workers remains a perpetual struggle. JBS USA, a Brazilian conglomerate that now owns the plant, has raised starting wages nearly 25 percent in recent years, but like other meat processors across the country, it survived by finding a different set of foreigners to do jobs that used to be filled by illegal workers: refugees.
There are Burmese meat cutters a few years removed from refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia. "Chuckers" from Sudan, tall and strong, who specialize in separating the spinal cord from a side of beef swinging on a moving chain. Somalis who showed up in such numbers that Moore County at one point had the fifth-highest per capita Muslim population in the United States, according to religion survey data, though many of those workers have moved to join a larger community of their compatriots in Minnesota.
A decade after Operation Wagon Train, the Trump administration says it is preparing to crack down on employers who hire illegal workers and may revive enforcement tactics such as big roundups, which fell out of favor under President Barack Obama. But President Donald Trump's plans to intervene in the U.S. labor market are more ambitious than that.
Under Trump, the U.S. government is for the first time in decades seeking to sharply restrict legal immigration, particularly the entry of people with few job skills, saying they compete with American-born workers and drive down wages. By limiting immigration and tightening the labor pool, the administration argues, competition will increase among employers, forcing them to raise the wages of blue-collar American workers left behind in the dust of galloping global capitalism.
In deep-red Moore County, where Trump won 75 percent of the vote, the president's rhetoric on immigration has emboldened some of his supporters to freely vent their frustrations at the meatpacking plant they blame for bringing crime, drugs and civic decline. Their corner of northern Texas has been culturally and economically transformed, and they had never had an American president say the transformation was a bad thing.
And yet, no one seemed to believe the Cactus plant would be filled anytime soon with American workers. People here were not even sure they were American jobs in the first place. At least not since the Vietnamese and Laotians showed up in the late 1970s, a few years after the plant opened.
"Cactus wouldn't exist without the plant," said city manager Aldo Gallego, who grew up in the town after his parents moved from Arizona in 1992 to work for Swift. He estimates that about half of all floor workers are refugees and that half are Latino, mostly immigrants.
"The plant didn't skip a beat," Gallego said. "Everyone's gotta eat steak."
Workers who hang on at the unionized plant earn wages that average more than $17 an hour, in addition to health benefits and free language classes, making it one of the best-paying jobs in the United States for someone who speaks little or no English.
Cactus is not always a melting pot of meatpacking harmony. Workers of different ethnicities and languages struggle to communicate, and sometimes they clash. Turnover among new hires is high. The town's streets are a jumble of windblown garbage and battered trailers, each one appendaged with dusty vehicles parked at odd angles, like fingers from a hand.
But there is relative prosperity here, too, especially in nearby Dumas, 13 miles south and a comfortable distance from the foul odors wafting around the plant. Busy fast-food restaurants line Dumas's main drag, anchored by the only Walmart for miles.
Vast feedlots surround the plant, funneling as many as 5,000 cattle per day toward the "kill floor," where workers with bolt guns begin the butchering. Temperatures there sometimes exceed 90 degrees. The production floor is a giant meat locker kept just above freezing. Cutters slice off fat and hack at gristle with razor-sharp knives that occasionally flay hands and fingers, too.
The floors grow slick with blood and beef fat throughout the day, until crews of Central Americans in full-body suits arrive at 11 p.m., working through the night to blast away the gore with high-pressure hoses and chemicals.
"We don't really see American people in these jobs," said Lian Sian Piang, 34, a meat quality inspector and ethnic Chin who ran away from conscription in the Burmese army as a teenager, living for years in a Malaysian refugee camp. During his 10 years at the Cactus plant, he said, he has seen only "two or three white guys" cutting meat.
"The work is very hard," he said. "The chain moves so fast. Most people just can't handle it."
A Valero oil refinery is Moore County's other big employer, and its workers are mostly U.S.-born. Jobs there require significantly more skills, and fluent English. Asked what it would take for more local workers to take jobs in meatpacking, many here say JBS would have to pay as much as the refinery, where wages are $30 an hour or more.
American packing plants could pay that much, industry experts say. But that would mean much, much more expensive meat, and it would probably drive JBS out of Cactus.
The Trump administration already is putting its economic theories to the test, tightening immigration at a time of historically low unemployment. The number of refugees admitted into the United States has dropped by about 70 percent since Trump took office, and his administration is phasing out the provisional residency permits of more than 250,000 Haitians and Central Americans who have worked legally in the United States for years under temporary protected status.
The U.S. meatpacking industry was in a labor squeeze before these measures, having opened new plants in recent years to keep pace with soaring export demands and annual U.S. sales approaching $100 billion. Many of the industry's processing plants are located in remote rural areas of Midwestern states where employers in nearly every industry are struggling to find qualified workers, especially job candidates who will not test "hot" for drugs.
Because refugees have a reputation for lower levels of drug use, they remain attractive job recruits.
Asked whether his labor shortages have been exacerbated by the Trump administration's immigration policies, JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said the company was "proud to offer jobs to any qualified individual authorized to work in the United States."
"The Administration has made a concerted effort to grow the economy and help businesses thrive through tax reform and a common-sense approach to regulation," Bruett said in a statement. "We believe it will adopt a similarly pragmatic approach to workforce availability in agriculture and other labor-dependent sectors."
It was an acknowledgment that a remedy for the labor shortage - "workforce availability" - would come from abroad.
Immigrants have been butchering American meat since the 19th century, when Germans, Irish and Eastern Europeans crammed the Chicago stockyards. Wages in the packing industry increased with unionization and remained high relative to other manufacturing jobs between the 1930s and 1970s, a period of relatively low levels of immigration.
But wages fell as companies began moving their plants out of urban areas and closer to feedlots, driving down union membership.
The changing composition of the workforce in Cactus mirrors modern immigration to the United States. The Vietnamese and Laotian refugees who came to the plant were followed by a flood of Mexican workers in the 1980s, many of them illegal. Then came Central Americans in the 1990s, mostly from Guatemala.
Swift, like other meat processors, was so hard-pressed to find workers that it offered $500 bonuses to those who could recruit newcomers, creating perverse incentives to falsify documents with borrowed or fake Social Security numbers.
Such offenses were no longer viewed lightly in the post-9/11 era. During President George W. Bush's second term, ICE raided packing plants across the Midwest in a campaign culminating in Operation Wagon Train.
Loya, the former plant worker, who now teaches English to refugees, remembers driving to the local elementary school that day, after schoolteachers called in a panic. There were children waiting to be picked up, but many of their parents were already on buses heading to ICE detention centers.
"I drove to the school, found the kids and just started asking them: Do you have a sister, or an aunt, or a cousin who can pick you up?" Loya said. "It was crazy."
A tornado hit Cactus four months after the raid, flipping cars and smashing homes. No one died, but people in Moore County would joke that the twister had come to finish the job for ICE.
"Cactus used to be a nice community," said Paula Gibson, whose family came to Moore County in the late 19th century, a generation after the U.S. Army defeated the Comanche and other horse-mounted Plains tribes who fought the white settlers.
Gibson and her husband, Lee, returned to Moore County in the late 1970s after studying at West Texas A&M University, and over the years they integrated their family farm and ranch into the global economy. They raise cattle, grow corn and run a successful manure composting business using techniques Lee picked up as a graduate student. But they say that something in Moore County has been lost and that the meatpacking plant has changed their corner of north Texas for the worse.
Thieves broke into the Gibsons' ranch house last month, stealing a gun and more than $100,000 in family jewelry, including the wedding ring of Paula Gibson's grandmother. The Gibsons do not blame immigrants or refugees, but the plant and the churn of its workforce have made Moore County a transient place of distant strangers.
"We didn't use to have to lock our doors or lock our cars," she said. "We went from that to a community with mass immigration, where people don't even care how their property looks."
The Gibsons' adult sons, Braden and Brett, help run the farm and ranch today, and like JBS, the family struggles to attract and retain American workers. Last summer, they hired three South Africans on temporary guest-worker visas. "We'd do it again," Lee Gibson said.
Braden Gibson, 36, worries that his son will get less attention at school because the teachers have to spend so much time on the basics. "They are under pressure to get the kids to learn English and pass the tests to secure their funding," he said.
The Gibson family thinks Moore County would probably be better off without the plant, even if it meant having to sell their cattle elsewhere. But they have no expectation that the forces of globalization can be so easily bent. "This is all part of feeding the world," Braden Gibson said with a shrug. "It's what America does. It's part of the gig."
"This used to be an all-white town," said Moore County Judge Rowdy Rhoades, a former mayor of Dumas. He said it as a matter of fact, not a lament. "Some folks have had a hard time accepting the changes."
With the arrival of so many refugees to work for JBS, an area that used to have two cultures and languages - Spanish and English - suddenly had 20. The school principal gathered immigrant parents at one point to explain how to use American bathrooms. But the growing pains eased as the refugees settled in, Rhoades said.
"We're OK," he said. "We adapt. We're Texans."
Then Trump came along, and those who were not okay with the immigrants were a lot less shy about saying as much. When Piang, the ethnic Chin, took his car to a local auto body shop last year, the owner screamed at him to go back to Burma, even though he had become a U.S. citizen in 2014. Piang said he drove away and shrugged it off. "I know most Americans are good people," he said.
Moore County has come a long way since the first refugees arrived, when Stan Corbin got a call from his church. "The refugees couldn't speak English, so they asked me to teach a class," he said. "It became a calling for me."
Over the years, Corbin became a one-man welcoming committee and full-time life coach for waves of refugees. He remembers the time some Laotians were arrested for net-fishing in the creek, and the time 64 Burmese showed up from Dallas, or when they got in trouble for tearing out the carpets of their apartment to cook on the floor, just like in the camps.
Corbin helped them pay utility bills and taxes, get driver's licenses and apply for citizenship, carrying lists of their names, birth dates and Social Security numbers, in case they lost them.
"I took them to the doctor, hospitals - they didn't know how to do anything," said Corbin, 80, who said he spent so much time with refugees he became estranged from his own son.
On a recent morning, Corbin visited a family of Burmese refugees from the Karen ethnic group who had bought a home in Dumas, paying it off in three years because they did not like carrying a mortgage.
"My father was always gone when we lived in the camps, working in the rice fields," said Gay Ku Paw, 20, a nursing student. In the refugee camp, the family lived in a shack with no running water or electricity, she said, and remained in darkness when they could not afford candles and lamp oil.
Her mother, Lah Eh, 50, chops tail meat with a large knife at JBS, and her father, Ter Htoo, 53, operates huge mechanical shears that clip off cows' hoofs. "It's a good job," said Htoo, who prefers sitting on floor to the couch in his living room. It was below freezing outside, but like other Karen, he preferred going barefoot on the carpet. He served cups of jasmine tea from a giant thermos.
Four cars sat in the family's driveway. "In America, no one tries to take away your property," Htoo said. The only thing he does not like, he said, is when there aren't enough workers at the plant and the chain moves too fast.
"I know there are some here who don't value these people, but I don't think we can go back to the way we were," Corbin said. "The first generation of adults that came here will never be assimilated and will probably never learn much English. They're so tired from work that they can't study. But their kids are their hope, and their kids want to be American."
Corbin voted for Trump, but he does not agree with the president when he says the country needs a merit-based immigration system favoring those with advanced skills.
"What we need is people willing to work hard, and people willing to work at JBS," he said. "Their children will grow up to be engineers. But right now in our country, there is a great need for laborers."
Author Information: Nick Miroff covers drug trafficking, border security and transnational crime on The Washington Post’s National Security desk.