INS Declares War on Labor
According to the INS, only about 1,000 of the 4,762 workers showed up for their interviews, and only thirty-four lacked legal papers and were deported. But the agency declared success, estimating that the 3,000-plus who failed to appear left their jobs, either through normal turnover or to avoid arrest. Such workers will be shut out of other plants because the program will deal with the entire industry at once. Meanwhile, follow-up inspections every ninety days are intended to keep workers from returning to their old jobs. Eventually, as the program expands to other industries, there will be fewer and fewer places for immigrants to go.
"While this is a signal to employers to some degree," Reed admits, "it's really a signal to workers, who will go elsewhere and look for work." According to Mark Nemitz, president of Local 440 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at the Farmland pork plant in Denison, Iowa, dozens of local families left their homes during the week of the interviews there and camped out in the county park twelve miles outside town.
In Madison, Concepción quit her job before the program began. Manuel Flores was not so lucky. Since 1992 he has been trying to earn enough to relocate his family from Tulancingo, in central Mexico, crossing the border again after losing jobs but always coming back because conditions at home were even worse.
At his first job at Beef America there were a lot of injuries, Flores recalls, because the lines ran so fast--a mind-boggling 1,000 animals an hour. "The supervisors would shout obscenities at us to make us work faster, and they never trained me." He was fired because his papers were bad; then he paid a friend $200 for a birth certificate and a Social Security card and went to IBP. Last May he got a letter: "My supervisor came to me at work and said I was on the list. There were a lot of people on it, even the supervisor herself. She wanted to know if I was going to continue working and said I had ten days to fix my papers or leave."
Flores left. He has found a few days' work but not enough to cover expenses: "We pay $330 a month rent, our food bill is $160 a week, and I still have to send money home for my family there. I don't want to go back to Mexico. I don't know how we'll live there, either. If I don't work with bad documents, how can I work? We can't get green cards; if we could, we would."
"It's obvious why the INS started here," says Cecilia Olivarez Huerta, director of Nebraska's Mexican-American Commission. "There are no immigrant rights groups here whatsoever. Our Congressional delegation has nothing to say on immigrant rights issues. Can you imagine what would have happened if they had started this program in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago?"
In fact, Operation Vanguard's most serious effect may be the way it undermines the ability of isolated immigrants to organize. In Omaha, where activists have been organizing in nonunion plants, the leaders of those efforts were wiped out by the INS.