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US Immigration Raids Target Meat Industry

Massive Crackdown Highlights Need for Better Protection of Workers

Workers are escorted onto a bus for transportation to a processing center following a raid by US immigration officials at a Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Mississippi, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

On Wednesday, United States immigration authorities arrested 680 people during raids on 7 food processing plants across the state of Mississippi, in what is likely the largest workplace immigration raid in the US in over a decade.

Like many dangerous, demanding, and dirty low-wage industries, the meat industry in the US relies heavily on immigrant labor, and immigration enforcement authorities have routinely carried out high-profile, mass arrests of workers in meat and poultry plants.

A May 2008 raid on a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa had been the largest workplace raid until now. And in April 2018, immigration authorities arrested nearly 100 workers at a cattle slaughtering and processing plant near Morristown, Tennessee.

I spoke with some of the workers arrested in Morristown, as well as their families and community members, for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report on workers’ rights in US meat and poultry plants. The interviews made clear that workplace raids like these tear apart families and communities, which must continue to cope with their traumatic effects long after immigration officials are gone.

Wednesday’s raid will affect immigrants around the country who work each day to prepare the meat Americans consume. Many of the meat and poultry plant workers who spoke with Human Rights Watch were afraid of employer retaliation, regardless of their immigration status. They said that fear of immigration enforcement as a tool of retaliation prevents many immigrant workers from reporting workplace abuses.

“We don’t work with our real names, so we are afraid,” said an undocumented worker from a chicken plant in North Carolina. “We don’t have the right to speak up.” The fact that Wednesday’s raid in Mississippi included a plant that recently settled a class action employment discrimination lawsuit for USD$3.75 million may confirm this fear for many workers.

The US government cannot adequately protect the safety of workers in plants like those raided this week unless its immigration policies ensure immigrant workers are able to speak up without fear of reprisal.

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