Immigrants in food production have always been “essential workers.” Politicians and agribusiness executives are suddenly acknowledging this fact, out of a desire to maintain food production and keep supermarkets stocked. But these workers remain among those most exposed to the threats of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly because policies that criminalize and exclude immigrants make them some of the people least protected from the dire effects of the crisis.
This double bind is especially clear in meat processing. In the United States, immigrants account for about one-third of the industry’s low-wage workforce. While this has always been toxic and dangerous work, cramped quarters designed to maximize line speeds, unsanitary conditions, and limited access to soap and water have created the ideal setting for outbreaks of COVID-19.
In rural regions of the country, meat-processing plants have been at the center of some of the most rapid spikes in viral transmission. At the Tyson meat factory in Perry, Iowa, 58 percent of workers have tested positive for COVID-19. At the Central Valley Meat Company in Hanford, California, at least 138 workers have confirmed cases. Of the twenty largest outbreak clusters in the country, 25 percent of them occurred at meat-processing facilities. As of May 5, at least ten thousand cases of coronavirus were linked to the meat industry. Some processing corporations have slowed their operations or closed down entirely to avoid further outbreaks.
But the decreased productivity that left stores rationing their meat supply did not sit well with the Trump administration. And last week, the White House issued an executive order using the Defense Production Act to encourage meat processing plants to remain open. While the order cites an alleged need to protect “critical infrastructure,” Donald Trump himself said that one of his goals was to limit the liability of meat-processing corporations for their employees becoming ill.
At least as important to industry executives and their political allies is that the policy will curtail workers’ access to unemployment benefits. The order constrains the options of people who work in meat processing and confines them to a choice between having enough money to live and risking their lives to work. While publicly recognizing them as “essential,” Trump’s move to force them back onto the line during the pandemic has shown that they are, instead, expendable and worth sacrificing to sustain the nation’s meat supply.
The pandemic endangers everyone who works in meat processing. Black workers, who comprise the majority in Southern poultry plants, live in communities suffering the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths. In several states where chicken processing is concentrated, governments have refused to expand Medicaid and offer some of the lowest average unemployment benefits.
Immigrant workers often face related risks while being denied access to these already-insufficient social programs. Even before Trump’s executive order, undocumented people in most states could not file for unemployment insurance. Many immigrants cannot use public health programs or fear that accessing medical care could lead to their deportation or prevent them from obtaining legal residency in the future.
Climbing rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths at meat-processing plants have highlighted a chronic crisis created over many years by anti-labor policies developed to facilitate control over a largely black and brown workforce. Restrictive immigration laws and policing practices have shaped the composition of these plants. Now some of those same criminalizing policies are keeping workers from accessing life-saving care.
Cutting Costs, Importing Workers
Things were not always this way. By the 1950s, after decades of gains rooted in multiracial industrial organizing and the growth of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), wages in beef and pork processing rivaled those in steel and auto manufacturing.
That changed in the 1980s, when beef and pork companies conducted an assault on worker power. Firms moved from urban sites of high union density to the rural Midwest and Great Plains and began aggressively recruiting immigrant workers, many of them originally from Mexico and Central America.
Poultry processing has long been concentrated in Southern states with a history of collusion between anti-union governments and industrial corporations. Companies have relied heavily on women workers and a racially segregated labor market to keep wages low. As Angela Stuesse explains in her book Scratching Out a Living, organizing campaigns led largely by black women in the 1970s, combined with high turnover in the early 1990s — itself a form of labor action — spurred companies to recruit Latin American and Caribbean immigrants living in Texas and South Florida.
Government data indicate that from 1980 to 2000, the proportion of “Hispanic” workers in US meat processing more than tripled from 8.5 to 28.5 percent. The vast majority of the new workers were born outside the United States, and more than half had arrived within the previous ten years.
Meat companies often argued that they had to recruit immigrants because of “labor shortages” in local communities. Like claims made by other agribusiness companies, allegations of labor scarcity hinged on racist tropes about African Americans being “unwilling” to work. Black workers represented a relatively stable proportion of meat-processing workers throughout this period, and companies exploited racism to undermine their power. Supposed hiring difficulties stemmed not from a shortage of workers but from dismal labor practices and poor pay. To preserve their profits, executives recruited recent immigrants whom they thought would be less likely to challenge the status quo.
What has made immigrants especially appealing to meat companies are the precarious legal conditions in which many of them live. Many immigrant workers are undocumented, refugees, or living under one of several provisional statuses created by restrictive immigration policies.
US immigration law remains structured by a long-standing tension between the demands of agribusiness firms for exploitable labor and the desires of nativists to limit immigration. Corporate executives and managers have sought out immigrants to work in fields and factories, while other white people have been more concerned with excluding black and brown people from the country.
The resulting compromise ultimately benefited corporations. For decades, US immigration policy consisted largely in looking the other way while immigrant workers entered the country without legal permission. Their criminalized status facilitated efforts by enforcement agencies and employers to control them — and their labor — through surveillance and policing.
As Kelly Lytle Hernández shows in her study of the US Border Patrol, the threat of deportation has given corporations significant leverage over undocumented workers in the Southwest. Similarly, Cindy Hahamovitch details how guest-worker programs maintain migrants in an easily “deportable” legal status that limits their ability to organize or even to walk off the job.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a bipartisan anti-immigrant movement — along with some major labor unions — encouraged Congress to intensify the criminalization and policing of immigrant workers and their families. The number of immigrants detained and deported since then has skyrocketed.
The visibility of arrests and deportations has increased since Trump took office. Large worksite raids came to a halt after President George W. Bush presided over the largest single-site immigration raid in US history in Postville, Iowa, in 2008. But these raids returned in force as a primary tactic of the Trump administration. Since 2017, worksite raids have increased drastically, and while they have occurred in a range of industries — from trailer manufacturers to nurseries to cell phone factories — they often target meat processing plants, such as those in Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
Trump’s decision to deem such workers “essential” rings hollow as his administration spends billions to remove them en masse. In fact, the White House is exploiting the pandemic to advance its long-standing anti-immigrant agenda, and Trump has adapted his primary political strategy of scapegoating to fit the health crisis.
At least one major meat corporation, Smithfield Foods, has followed suit. A corporate spokesperson actually blamed immigrant workers for a major outbreak in South Dakota that spread through one of Smithfield’s plants.
In the meantime, immigration agents have continued to arrest, detain, and deport people. The sustained policing of noncitizens and citizens alike has turned jails and prisons into viral epicenters. Incarcerated people have demanded protection from the virus, and organizers and advocates have pushed for mass releases and appropriate medical care.
Prisons and processing plants are different in fundamental ways, but people in both places are living under severe constraints and facing extreme risks during the pandemic. Of the individual sites with COVID-19 outbreaks that total one hundred cases or more, 20 percent are meat-processing plants and 70 percent are prisons and jails.
Some of the meat companies that have depended on the labor of African Americans and immigrants of color for a long time have begun contracting with state prisons for workers. Meat corporations depend heavily on workers whose freedom has been significantly constrained. With Trump’s executive order intended to keep workers in the plants, the US government further constrained their options.
Acute Phase of a Chronic Crisis
The federal response to the current emergency mirrors its approach to the chronic crisis in meat processing and other low-wage, high-risk jobs. Despite the efforts of elected officials and meat companies to coerce them back onto the line, many workers are refusing to be sacrificed in the name of corporate profits.
Meat-processing plants have proven to be exceptionally dangerous places during the pandemic. But immigrants make up a large proportion of the workforce in a range of jobs that entail high risks of exposure to the coronavirus. Instead of acknowledging this fact and implementing policies to protect people, the federal government has excluded immigrants, their families, and their communities from its emergency provisions. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive COVID-19 stimulus checks, nor are their spouses and children. Trump recently threatened to limit COVID-19 aid to cities that restrict how local police cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
These policies represent an unconscionable attack on immigrant communities. It comes at a time when their always-essential roles are as clear as they have ever been.