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How US Policies Fueled Mexico's Great Migration | The Nation

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How US Policies Fueled Mexico's Great Migration

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Keith Ludlum is president of UFCW Local 1208.

As new migrants, the Veracruzanos were desperate and hungry. Most were undocumented. According to Keith Ludlum, one of the plant’s few white workers, “After Smithfield ran through the workforce around here, you started seeing a lot more immigrants working in the plant. The company thought the undocumented would work cheap, work hard, and they wouldn’t complain.”

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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Ramirez describes the Veracruz immigrants as “docile at first, because they didn’t have the experience.” For employers, she explains, “these people were a safe workforce. They didn’t understand their rights, but they got the message—don’t organize. They would work fast for fear of losing their jobs, because there was no alternative.”

“They pressured you so you’d work faster and produce more,” Ortega recalls. “You felt like knifing the foreman. Many wanted to throw their knives at his feet and just leave. But if you are the support of your family, you put up with it. I am not going to leave my work, you’d say to yourself—who will pay me then?”

Eventually, however, like the locals, the immigrants didn’t put up with it either.

In the early 2000s the UFCW sent in a new group of organizers, who began helping workers find tactics to slow down the lines. They set up a workers’ center in Red Springs, offering English classes after work. In 2003 the night cleaning crew refused to work, keeping the lines from starting the following morning. David Ceja helped organize another work stoppage a year later.

Ortega was fired in 2005. “Perhaps they saw us talking about this [the union] on our meal breaks, and they started to notice there is something going on with these people,” he says. “They never told me and I never knew why I was fired. They just said, As of today there is no more work for you.” He then began making visits to other workers.

By 2006 Mexicans made up about 60 percent of the plant’s 5,000 employees. In April of that year, protests and demonstrations for immigrants’ rights were spreading across the country, culminating in massive May Day rallies in dozens of cities. Hundreds left the Tar Heel plant and marched through the streets of Wilmington. On May Day only a skeleton crew showed up for work.

Abel Cervantes, a worker at the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, was cut by a knife at work. At 20 years old, he can no longer use his hand or work.

That spring, Smithfield enrolled in the Department of Homeland Security’s IMAGE program, in which the government identifies undocumented workers and employers agree to fire them. The program enforces a provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act called employer sanctions, which prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. Smithfield spokeswoman Richards says, “We do all that the law requires, and more, in assuring that our workforce is authorized to work in the US.”

In October 2006 the company announced that it intended to fire hundreds of workers suspected of being undocumented because they had bad Social Security numbers. When terminations started, 300 workers walked out and stopped production, temporarily forcing the company to rescind the firings.

Ludlum, who had just been rehired after a twelve-year legal battle, says, “It was really empowering to see all those workers stand up together—probably one of the best experiences of my life.” It had an effect on African-American workers too. They collected 4,000 signatures, asking the company for the day off on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. When managers refused, 400 black workers on the kill line didn’t come in. With no hogs on the hooks at the beginning of the lines, no one else could work either. The plant shut down again.

Nine days later, agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained twenty-one Smithfield workers for deportation, questioning hundreds more in the lunchroom. Fear was so intense that most immigrants didn’t show up for work the following day. A few months later, another raid took place. Some of the detained workers were later charged with federal felonies for using bad Social Security numbers.

Meanwhile, ICE agents swept through Mexican communities, detaining people at home and in the street. Ludlum and union organizer Eduardo Peña followed the ICE agents with video cameras but couldn’t stop the raids. Ludlum, Peña and other union activists believed the company had cooperated in the immigration enforcement because the Veracruzanos were no longer useful. “The workforce that was in the shadows was expecting rights, expecting to be part of the community,” Ludlum says. “That’s not what the company wanted.”

* * *

Eventually, the crackdown took its toll, and the immigrant workforce shrank by half, as people left. Union organizing stalled. But then, in 2006, led by activist Terry Slaughter, African-American workers stopped the plant again by sitting all day in the middle of the kill floor. They put union stickers on their hard hats and began collecting signatures demanding union recognition. Spurred by widespread community support and the threat of lawsuits, the company agreed to an election without its old bare-knuckle tactics. When the ballots were finally counted on December 11 that year, the union had won. Today Ludlum is president of UFCW Local 1208, and Slaughter is secretary-treasurer.

Terry Slaughter is secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 1208.

A Veracruzana, Carmen Izquierdo, sits on the union executive board. “In the union it doesn’t matter if you’re undocumented, if you have papers or not,” she says. “All the workers here, whether or not we have papers, have rights.” Ludlum and Slaughter say line speed is slower now, and workers can rotate from one job to another, reducing injuries. Ceja feels that the union gave workers a tool to change conditions. “I’m glad it came in. We worked hard to get it,” he says. But he was not there to enjoy the union’s victory; he left after he was made a supervisor at the time of the raids. “They wanted me to send workers to the office, where I was afraid the immigration agents would be waiting for them,” he explains. “I thought it was better for me to leave, so I wouldn’t have to turn in my compañeros.”

Others left because of fear, especially in the intensifying anti-immigrant climate in North Carolina. Roberto Ortega and his wife, Maria, left the state when the hostility got worse and they couldn’t find work. Juvencio Rocha, head of the Network of Veracruzanos in North Carolina, says bitterly that “after we contributed to the economy, they didn’t want us here anymore. They even took our driver’s licenses away.”

Resisting the System on Both Sides of the Border

Smithfield didn’t invent the system of displacement and migration. It took advantage of US trade and immigration policies, and of economic reforms in Mexico. In both countries, however, the company was forced to bend at least slightly in the face of popular resistance. Farmers in Perote Valley have been able to stop swine shed expansion, at least for a while. Migrant Veracruzanos helped organize a union in Tar Heel. Yet these were defensive battles against a system that needs the land and labor of workers but does its best to keep them powerless.

“From the beginning NAFTA was an instrument of displacement,” says Juan Manuel Sandoval, co-founder of the Mexican Action Network Against Free Trade. “The penetration of capital led to the destruction of the traditional economy, especially in agriculture. People had no alternative but to migrate.” Sandoval notes that many US industries are dependent on this army of available labor. “Meatpacking especially depends on a constant flow of workers,” he says. “Mexico has become its labor reserve.”

Raul Delgado Wise, a professor at the University of Zacatecas, charges that “rather than a free-trade agreement, NAFTA can be described as…a mechanism for the provision of cheap labor. Since NAFTA came into force, the migrant factory has exported [millions of] Mexicans to the United States.”

About 11 percent of Mexico’s population lives in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Their remittances, which were less than $4 billion in 1994 when NAFTA took effect, rose to $10 billion in 2002, and then 
$20 billion three years later, according to the Bank of Mexico. Even in the recession, Mexicans sent home $21.13 billion in 2010. Remittances total 3 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product, according to Frank Holmes, investment analyst and CEO of US Global Investors. They are now Mexico’s second-largest source of national income, behind oil.

However, Mexico’s debt payments, mostly to US banks, consume the same percentage of the GDP as remittances. Those remittances, therefore, support families and provide services that were formerly the obligation of the Mexican government. This alone gives the government a vested interest in the continuing labor flow.

For Fausto Limon, the situation is stark: his family’s right to stay in Mexico, on his ranch in the Perote Valley, depends on ending the problems caused by the operation of Granjas Carroll. But he has no money for planting, and he shares the poverty created by meat and corn dumping with farmers throughout Mexico. The trade system that allows this situation to continue will inevitably produce more migrants—if not Limon, then probably his children. The fabric of sustainable rural life at his Rancho del Riego is being pulled apart.

The border wall in the mountains west of Mexicali.

In both the United States and Mexico, many migrant rights networks believe that rational immigration reform must address issues far beyond immigration law enforcement in the United States: real reform must change the US trade policies that contribute to displacing people. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a professor at UCLA and former head of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a group of indigenous Oaxacans living in Mexico and the United States, believes that in the United States “migrants need the right to work, but with labor rights and benefits.” In Mexico, “we need development that makes migration a choice rather than a necessity—the right to not migrate. Both rights are part of the same solution.”

There are some constructive proposals on the table. The TRADE Act, proposed in the 110th Congress by Maine Democratic Representative Mike Michaud, received support from many migrant rights groups because it would hold hearings to re-examine the impact of NAFTA, including provisions like the environmental side agreement that did nothing to restrict the impact of Granjas Carroll on Perote Valley. Another immigration reform proposal, called the Dignity Campaign, goes one step further. It would ban agreements that lead to displacement, like that caused by pork imports or the cross-border investments that created the Perote pig farms. It would also repeal employer sanctions, the immigration law that led to the firing of so many Veracruz migrants at the Tar Heel plant.

“Employer sanctions have little effect on migration,” says Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, “but they have made workers more vulnerable to employer pressure. The rationale has always been that this kind of enforcement will dry up jobs for the undocumented and discourage them from coming. However, they actually become more desperate and take jobs at lower wages—in effect, a subsidy to employers.”

“When you make someone’s status even more illegal,” Carolina Ramirez adds, “you just make their living and working conditions worse. Jobs become like slavery. And if there are no remittances, kids in Veracruz can’t go to school or to the doctor. All the social problems we already have get worse. And all this just provokes more migration.”

The Dignity Campaign and similar proposals are not viable in a Congress dominated by Tea Party nativists and corporations seeking guest-worker programs. But as it took a civil rights movement to pass the Voting Rights Act, any basic change to establish the rights of immigrants will also require a social upheaval and a fundamental realignment of power.

* * *

The walkouts in Smithfield and the marches in the streets in 2006 show a deep desire among migrants for basic changes in their conditions and rights. In Perote Valley, farmers are equally determined to prevent the expansion of pig farms and the destruction of their environment. These organizing efforts are linked not just because they’re carried on by people from the same state, facing the same transnational corporation. They’re trying to change the same system.

“We are fighting because we are being destroyed,” says Roberto Ortega. “That is the reason for the daily fight, to try to change this.”

All images © David Bacon 

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