Federal proposals to tackle illegal-alien disputes could transform the face of America’s labor pool bringing mixed blessings to some employers.
The animal protein industry and immigration reform collided recently, when Hispanic workers abandoned their jobs to protest against a political move threatening criminal prosecution for illegal settlers.
Similar scenes played in American cities where Hispanics and their sympathizers estimated at more than 1 million participated in national demonstrations on May 1, to increase public awareness of the plights documented and undocumented American workers face.
At issue are two divergent immigration reform bills under consideration by U.S. legislators, who are divided over the best course of action — whether to crack down hard on illegal immigrants or recognize their vital contributions to the U.S. economy and impose less restrictive punishments. Those on both sides of the issue apparently recognize that delaying immigration reform is not an option, given the long and controversial history tied to undocumented workers.
The U.S. House of Representatives favors criminalizing illegal immigrants and employers who knowingly hire or assist hiring efforts, as evidenced by H.R. 4437 legislation brokered by James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The House passed the bill December 16, 2005, naming it the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act. Basically, H.R. 4437 increases penalties for illegal immigration, while defining illegal aliens and their accomplices as felons. Based on a survey commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation, such a crackdown could trigger U.S. agricultural production losses of more than $12 billion in its first four years. To be sure, H.R. 4437 is considered the catalyst behind the U.S. immigration reform protests taking place this year.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan U.S. Senate measure, co-sponsored by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is considered less punitive and therefore more viable. Their proposal calls for allowing the millions of illegal immigrants living and working in America to pursue a multi-step path to citizenship, at the same time tightening border controls. The Kennedy/McCain measure hit resistance in the final hours before Congress adjourned for Easter recess this year, however, but not before House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) interceded with a compromise agreement to reduce unlawful immigration from a felony to a misdemeanor.
No American business sector is more affected by immigration policies than the animal protein industry, whose labor force is increasingly of foreign descent.
“This issue is extremely important to the meat and poultry industry in particular,” affirms J. Patrick Boyle, president, American Meat Institute. “The call for action is timely, given continuing unemployment rates and difficulty in filling positions in many regions of the country. Immigration reform also will help ensure an adequate and stable workforce, and will even enhance our nation’s security by bringing foreign workers into U.S. systems.”
Based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the meat and poultry packing and processing industry’s employee base will increase by 7.6 percent in 2010, reflecting a total combined labor force of 540,000 — 150,000 for meat packing, 103,000 for meat processing and 251,000 for poultry processing. The industry employed a combined workforce of 235,000 in 1975, which increased to 500,000 by 2000.
Most large meat and poultry packing plants of necessity operate in low-population, rural areas near livestock and poultry production sources.
“Even without a nationwide labor shortage, these low-population areas pose unique labor challenges to the labor-intensive meat and poultry packing industry,” Boyle points out.
The road to immigration reform is filled with potholes, to be sure, ensuring a bumpy ride ahead as migrants continue making their way into the United States legally and illegally. The Pew Hispanic Center, a non-profit, nonpartisan fact tank, reports that slightly more than 1.1 million migrants came to the United States starting in the early 1990s during the country’s rapid economic and job expansion period, and then declined as the economy went into a downturn after 2001. The Mexican labor force represented the largest single source of U.S. immigrants by far. Moreover, the Hispanic population is growing faster in parts of the South than anywhere else in the United States from North Carolina to Arkansas and Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico.
“Hispanic populations have emerged suddenly in communities where Latinos were a sparse presence just a decade or two ago,” affirms Pew Hispanic Center researchers in last year’s “The New Latino South” report.
The Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy changed the security-conscious mindset in America dramatically. The arm of the federal government charged with matters concerning border protection also changed. On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) shifted from the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and divided into three bureaus: the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). ICE is responsible for the investigative and enforcement functions of the former INS while CIS is responsible for the benefits granting and petition adjudication functions.
Dealing with undocumented workers
Undocumented immigrants continue to flood the United States in massive numbers despite the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which granted amnesty to earlier arrivals, but also authorized measures to stop the flow of new undocumented immigrants by tightening border controls and adopting “employer sanctions” making it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers. The job now belongs to slightly more than 300 ICE agents responsible for workplace enforcements.
The early threat did little to stop illegal hiring, whether on purpose or not, and the number of Latino workers increased rapidly. INS was relentless in its pursuit of undocumented workers anywhere in America in the early 1990s, and was responsible for hundreds of civil court cases against companies for hiring illegal immigrants. Generally the cases ended in modest fines.
Meat and poultry plants have endured their share of sporadic raids designed to root out illegal aliens. When INS targeted the Nebraska beef industry in the late ‘90s under the code name Operation Prime Beef, later named Operation Vanguard, it seized employee records from more than 100 meatpacking companies under subpoena.
In another incident dating back to 1998, Wal-Mart and several subcontractors were hit with civil fines totaling more than $10 million, ending a five-year federal probe that resulted in an illegal hiring charge. Wal-Mart denied wrongdoing on the grounds that submitted documents appeared valid, which could not be challenged under the law.
IFCO Systems, a pallet-recycling firm based in Houston, came under fire this year in April when ICE agents raided its nationwide operation following an undercover investigation. The company was charged with recruiting illegal immigrants and helping them obtain phony documents. The company denied the allegations, indicating documentation was thought to be legitimate.
So what’s a company to do? “We use all available tools to help verify documents,” Gary Mickelson of Tyson Foods stresses. “We have a zero tolerance for employing undocumented workers.”
Tyson uses the voluntary Basic Pilot program for employment verification developed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC).
Under Basic Pilot, employers enter information on an “I-9” form used to check documents against Social Security records and other databases. Formed in 1999, EWIC was born to address labor shortages by advocating and supporting comprehensive immigration reform and policies that facilitate the employment of essential workers (semi-skilled and unskilled) by companies unable to find American workers.
Basic Pilot, a voluntary system providing an additional step to identify and verify a worker’s status, is used by far less than 1 percent of meat and poultry industry employers. The law not only punishes employers who hire illegal immigrants, it also punishes employers using additional methods of verification.
Consider the case involving Swift & Company and the $2.5 million Department of Justice fine against its pork plant in Worthington, Minn., cited for “overzealous” documentation verification practices in 2002.
“We were charged with doing too much and being in violation for being overzealous,” Sean McHugh, Swift’s vice president investor relations, public relations and communications, confirms. “Employers are stuck in the middle in a situation like this — between the Department of Justice verification requirements on the one hand, and the Office of Special Counsel on the other hand saying you cannot discriminate in the identification process.”
Counterfeit documents have become big business in America with forgers selling fake Social Security Cards, driver’s licenses and immigrant registration cards, among other documents to millions of illegal immigrants.
Even so, employers are not allowed to reject a document that appears genuine on its face. They also are prohibited from requesting different documentation than would be required of non-foreigners.
“We at Swift strive to manage that fine line,” McHugh says.
For one thing, human resource departments in the field and at corporate are vigilant about ensuring legal compliance concerning I-9 report requirements, McHugh says. “Training is ongoing to prepare people for recognizing legitimate documents. They are shown examples of forgeries common in the marketplace and constantly review pertinent laws.” NP