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].

Zeroing in on forty plants with 24,310 workers, agents sifted out 4,762 names. Then they sent the names to each company. Listed workers received a letter ordering them to come for an interview. In Madison, 255 of IBP’s 1,051 employees got letters.

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.

Since last fall Sergio Sosa, a Guatemalan organizer with Omaha Together One Community, has been meeting with packinghouse workers, investigating plant conditions while looking for cultural threads to unify an anxious work force. “We’ve been trying to find the natural leaders and slowly put together a committee in the plants that can organize collective actions to change conditions,” he says. Father Damien Zuerlein, who supports Sosa’s group, started organizing workers at Greater Omaha Packing three years ago. “People weren’t getting bathroom breaks, and even urinated in their clothes on the line,” he says. “The line speed was tremendous, and lots of workers showed symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. But management sent spies into our group, and everyone involved in the effort was fired. We concluded that we needed to root our organizing deeper in the plant.”

Sosa’s work led to the formation of a committee of twenty-two in-plant leaders who met regularly and were building a base. After Operation Vanguard’s Omaha debut, only two of those leaders were left. As Sosa puts it, “The companies already buy people off when they begin to organize, threaten workers with immigration raids, fire people and even bring in workers from the border in a crisis. Operation Vanguard gave the companies a big gift on top of all this–almost all our leaders had to find jobs elsewhere.”

The INS says the impetus for its program came from Anglo leaders in small towns like Madison, which twenty years ago were almost all white. “The community was frustrated about the unabated flow of illegal immigration,” Reed says. A group of Nebraska police officers, accompanied by the state’s Congressional delegation, called on INS commissioner Doris Meissner in Washington to complain about the high crime rate they attributed to the boom in immigration. According to a 1998 General Accounting Office study, the percentage of minorities living in Nebraska counties with heavy meatpacking work rose from 6 percent in 1980 to 9.5 percent today; and in Iowa, from 3.1 percent to 5 percent. In the schools the number of Spanish-speaking students with limited proficiency in English jumped from 227 to 4,600 over ten years in Nebraska and more than doubled in Iowa over the same period. Smaller Asian communities are growing at a similar pace. Those numbers, arbitrarily associated with illegal immigration and the jump in crime, gave the INS the wedge it needed. “We were challenged to do a better job in Nebraska,” Reed says. “If we showed we could impact the meatpacking industry, we knew we could show a new way of dealing with the illegal-alien problem.”

The “problem” in these Midwestern towns is intimately linked to the transformation of the meatpacking industry, which twenty years ago abandoned large cities and its traditional system of slaughtering the animals, cutting them into quarters and then sending the meat to markets, where skilled butchers cut it into pieces for consumers. “IBP engineered the move to rural communities,” says Lourdes Gouveia, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska. “It worked out the new system in the plants and pioneered cost-cutting by attacking organized labor.”

The new system began with IBP’s development of boxed beef. Now, animals are cut apart on disassembly lines, where an individual worker might cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Boxes of consumer-size chunks of meat are then shipped to market. Line speeds have increased enormously, and as workers continually repeat the same motions, injuries have skyrocketed.

Although 60 percent of the meatpacking work force remains unionized, the restructuring drastically eroded the power of the union from the days when the militant United Packinghouse Workers negotiated master contracts that set wage standards higher than those of most manufacturing workers. The union culture was changing at the same time, as the Packinghouse Workers merged first with retail butchers in the Amalgamated Meatcutters and then with the Retail Clerks to form the United Food and Commercial Workers. In the first half of the eighties, meatpackers competed fiercely to force wage concessions from the UFCW, and in the process thirty plants closed between 1980 and 1982 alone. From the wreckage emerged a new group of meat monopolies: IBP, ConAgra, Cargill and Smithfield, which account for about 80 percent of all cattle and hogs slaughtered in the country. Average meatpacking wages are now between $9 and $10 an hour, the same level, adjusted for inflation, that they were at twenty years ago and $4 lower than today’s average manufacturing wage.

Local 440’s Nemitz says that union wages at Farmland alone declined by $1.54 in 1982. “For the last five years there’s been a labor shortage because of the low wages. The human relations director tells me that they’re operating with 100 people less than they need.” To fill the plants, companies began recruiting Latino immigrants. “That was another IBP innovation,” Gouveia explains. “They’ve created a whole new labor force, and the rest of the industry has followed.” A 1989 memo to plant managers from Raoul Baxter, corporate human relations director of Morrell & Co., says, “With the realistic labor shortage and turnover we are facing, perhaps we could do a much better job than IBP of slowly recruiting Mexican Americans of high quality to work in Sioux City and Sioux Falls.” Companies have sent recruiters to Los Angeles and other large immigrant communities. They’ve advertised on radio along the border, and even sent buses to pick up people as they cross over. “They’re bringing people from El Paso, Durango, Zacatecas and Chihuahua,” says Roberto Ceja, a worker at Nebraska Beef’s Omaha plant. “They’re even advertising on TV.”

The architects of Operation Vanguard don’t wish to inhibit this drive for cheap labor. An INS handout reassures companies, “Our intention, of course, is not to harm operations but work in partnership to help you maintain a stable, legal work force.” An INS backgrounder commits the agency to “a partnership with top managers in the meat packing/ processing industry.” Gerard Heinauer, an INS official in Omaha, told the UFCW, which represents many of the targeted plants, that cooperating employers “will no longer be subject to unannounced operations during which large numbers of workers are abruptly removed,” thereby disrupting production.

On the other hand, union attorney Anna Avendaño says, “Unionbusting employers can use this INS strategy to chill organizing campaigns. The employers become agents of the government in interrogating workers, which gives them tremendous power.” According to Avendaño, the INS has never consulted the union. “The union has no responsibility here,” says Reed, adding, “I would think unions would embrace this. Employers love illegal aliens–they’re reliable, malleable; they work as long as the employer wants, and they never complain about anything.”

Meanwhile, the UFCW has not formally demanded that Operation Vanguard cease. Although the union is cooperating with other critics of the program, like the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, it is focusing on what it calls selective enforcement in only one industry (meatpacking) and one region (the right-to-work states of Nebraska and Iowa) and complains about the operation’s impact on legal residents. (The Appleseed Center’s Milo Mumgaard, however, is investigating a possible discrimination lawsuit against the INS.)

At the local level the response of union leaders reflects deep conflicts within the UFCW over how to deal not only with immigration but with the industry itself. Bill Buckholtz is secretary/treasurer of UFCW Local 1142 at Morrell in Sioux City, Iowa, the world’s largest pork plant. As an active member of REAP (for Research Education Advocacy People), the rank-and-file movement in the union, he is a bitter critic of the international’s concession bargaining. On illegal immigration, he blames the companies for bringing the workers as a source of cheap labor but also thinks immigrant communities are the source of new levels of crime and violence. He says things won’t change until wages go up. “If we’d have some fights in the organized plants, we could get the wages here to where they should be, and put pressure on the rest of the industry. Then they’d hire fewer undocumented and create a stable work force.” Yet in his plant the work force that would have to get organized to make that fight is 70 percent immigrant, documented and undocumented mixed together.

In Denison, Iowa, Mark Nemitz, not a REAP member, also believes “wages have to be tackled industrywide.” He says, “Operation Vanguard wants to drive the undocumented out of meatpacking, but I think it will just drive people further underground and make it harder for them to organize. Some say they want to see all the Hispanics go, but to me that’s racist. People have the right to work wherever they want and to be protected like everyone else. Maybe if people were legalized or employer sanctions ended, it would make people less vulnerable.”

Both Buckholtz’s and Nemitz’s locals have tried to organize nonunion plants. In both cases, they say, threats of immigration raids turned the tide against the union just before people were to vote in representation elections. As is necessary in right-to-work states, both locals continually sign up workers as they come into union plants, and both have about a 95 percent membership rate. Both sign up documented and undocumented workers and translate meetings and papers into Spanish and other languages where necessary. But as Nemitz acknowledges, “If we want to organize, we need community support, and trust is a big factor. I think we have to look at what Father Damien is doing.”

Despite some public quarreling over lost production due to Operation Vanguard, the INS and the industry are remarkably in sync in their objectives. Both agree that meatpacking needs a stable force of low-wage labor. And both advocate a guestworker program as the means to achieve it.

For two decades until 1964, the United States had such an arrangement, the bracero program, which brought seasonal farmworkers from Mexico to California. While on paper “guestworkers” are guaranteed labor rights, they depend on a job’s continuation to remain in the country. Employers therefore have the power not only to fire those who agitate and organize but in effect to deport them as well. Unions and Latino and Asian/Pacific communities oppose such programs because an oversupply of labor means falling wages, and also because of these programs’ history.

Sherry Edwards of the American Meat Institute, an industry lobby, says that a new guestworker program would have to go beyond bracero, though. “We need permanent workers, not seasonal laborers,” she says. Angelo Fili of Greater Omaha Packing says, “I think a guestworker program would be good for the industry and good for the country.” So does the INS–and, presumably, high-level officials throughout the Clinton Administration. Reed admits that one purpose of Operation Vanguard is to force a political dialogue in which Congress would reassure industries dependent on immigrants that their supply of low-wage labor will not run dry.

“It’s time for a gut check,” Reed declares. “We depend on foreign labor, and we have to face the question: Are we prepared to bring in workers lawfully? How can we get unauthorized workers back into the work force in a legal way? If we don’t have illegal immigration anymore, we’ll have the political support for guestworker. People have talked about it for years, but we never had to really deal with it until Operation Vanguard.”

And, Reed continues, “this has been coordinated with headquarters all the way. I met with [INS director] Meissner…. She’s encouraging more internal enforcement operations. She said, ‘I want endgames.’ That’s what this is.”

A guestworker program almost made it on the floor of Congress last session, and it’s expected that Senators Gordon Smith of Oregon and Bob Graham of Florida will again try to attach it to a spending bill. Nebraska’s Republican delegation is already setting up invitation-only meetings between INS and industry representatives to discuss labor shortages caused by Operation Vanguard. “The disruption from Operation Vanguard is certainly fuel for the political fire supporting guestworker,” Anna Avendaño of the UFCW says. “We know the employers really want this. It’s a very serious and immediate threat.”

Father Damien goes even further: “I wonder if the meatpackers aren’t really behind it [Operation Vanguard] after all. If packers got a guestworker program, it would really destroy the present work force.” Whether or not it’s a coordinated effort, government and industry get to the same place in the end.

“It’s all become an issue of the price of labor,” Lourdes Gouveia says, “how it will be regulated, and how much it will cost employers.”