Before Concepción Vargas came to Nebraska, she was a maquiladora worker–a child of the border, born in Reynosa, Mexico, across the river from Texas. Her brother-in-law Alfredo had preceded her to the States, to the small town of Madison, where he began working for the meatpacking giant IBP, earning $8 an hour and sleeping in the park or his car. In time, Alfredo brought his sister to Madison, who brought her brother Doroteo, who brought Concepción and their 4-year-old daughter.
Concepción bought a birth certificate and a Social Security card for $650. She got a picture ID from the motor vehicles department and went down to IBP, hiring on for $6 an hour as a temp on a line processing bacon, ham and cooked meat. It was awful work, but her daughter was sick, and the family needed money for doctor bills. “They put me to work in a freezing cold room,” she recalls. “I had to strip plastic bags off big legs of meat, which were frozen and hard as rocks. “All day I put them in a big vat filled with water to thaw them.” She got so cold she asked permission to go to the bathroom. “When I left the line, I wasn’t planning to come back. I went upstairs to the bathrooms, but then I remembered the way [my daughter] coughed all night, and how much we needed the money. I didn’t go to the bathroom, and I didn’t leave, either. I just stood there crying. Finally, I went back to work.”
To the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Concepción and Doroteo Vargas are the enemy–“criminal aliens,” along with thousands of other immigrants searching for a better life in the meatpacking plants. Like the other immigrant workers who appear in this story, their names have been changed, for they are at the epicenter of the Clinton Administration’s newest and most aggressive program for ending undocumented immigration: Operation Vanguard.
Since last fall, meatpacking plants in all of Nebraska and three counties in Iowa have been the site of a systematic effort to enforce employer sanctions–that section of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. Using records from Social Security and other agencies, the program attempts to purge undocumented immigrants from the work force en masse by terrorizing them into leaving their jobs. Behind the rhetoric of law enforcement, the program also makes it easier for companies to exploit workers.
It’s not called Operation Vanguard for nothing. Midwest meatpacking is a laboratory for an enforcement program that the INS intends to apply to every industry and area in the country where undocumented workers are concentrated. Right now the INS is in a dispute with Social Security over extending the program to the rest of Iowa, but it is determined to succeed there and then move on to Kansas, Arkansas, Texas and Missouri. “We will remove the magnet of jobs,” says INS regional director Mark Reed. “We will clean up one industry and turn the magnet down a bit, and then go on to another industry, and another, and another.” With that, the INS acknowledges, the ground would be laid for a “guestworker” program, which would allow companies to hire contract laborers outside the United States–in effect, indentured servants–thus securing a regular supply of low-wage workers.
Operation Vanguard got its first workout this past December when the INS subpoenaed the personnel records of every employee of every meatpacking plant in its target area–a total of about 40,000 workers. INS agents compared the employment information from those records–for instance, the Social Security number given by Concepción Vargas when she applied to IBP–with the national database. “Social Security is the backbone,” Reed says. “It’s the major index. But we’re going into the data mining business. If a person is in jail, on welfare or owns property, we can use all that information to tell who is who” [see sidebar, page 20].