On the northern edge of this frozen-over city of 90,000 halfway between Denver and Cheyenne, Swift & Co.’s beef processing plant squats like a windowless concrete bunker alongside the snow-covered railroad tracks. The winter air hangs heavy with the stench of animal waste. And the three strings of barbed wire atop the chain-link fence that girdles the facility give the hulking complex all the appeal of some forsaken, remote prison. Nevertheless, the steam snaking high and gently from the plant’s smokestacks has for several decades served as a beacon of hope and promise for thousands of immigrants, mostly Mexican, who have come north looking for a better life.
Working on the meatpacking floor can be a grueling, monotonous, dangerous routine, making thousands of the same cuts or swipes every day, and annual injury and illness rates might run 25 percent or more, but a union job with a wage of $12-$13 an hour, enough to support a family, seems worth the pain and risk.
At least until December 12, the holiday celebrating the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. What materialized in front of the Swift gates that morning was more like a vision of hell. Shortly after 7 am a half-dozen buses rolled up with a small fleet of government vans, which unloaded dozens of heavily armed federal agents backed by riot-clad local police. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents sealed off all entrances and exits and formed a perimeter around the factory. Then others barged inside and started rounding up the whole workforce.
Some of the frightened workers jumped into cattle pens; others hid behind machinery or in closets. Those who tried to run were wrestled to the ground. Sworn statements by some workers allege that the ICE agents used chemical sprays to subdue those who didn’t understand the orders barked at them in English. The plant’s entire workforce was herded into the cafeteria and separated into two groups: those who claimed to be US citizens or legal residents and those who didn’t.
While the Greeley plant was being locked down, more than 1,000 ICE agents simultaneously raided five other Swift factories in Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah and Minnesota. By the end of the day, nearly 1,300 immigrant workers had been taken into custody–about 265 of them from Greeley. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff boasted that the combined raids amounted to the largest workplace enforcement action in history. ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers would later claim that Operation Wagon Train, as the raids were dubbed, dealt a major blow in the “war against illegal immigration.”
Now critics of the raids–workers, union reps, clergy, community leaders, policy analysts and lawyers–wonder what the high-profile sweep accomplished other than to traumatize a few hundred Latino families and to cost Swift an estimated $30 million in lost production. If anything, it starkly reveals, once again, a federal immigration policy completely detached from economic and social realities and a Bush White House incapable of moving ahead with much-promised reform. “What has changed because of all this?” rhetorically asks Francisco Granados, a Greeley businessman and volunteer providing relief services to the affected families. “Nothing. Nada. The whole system is set up to make you lie.”