Victims in the Heartland: How Immigration Policy Affects Us All. (A Special Report on Immigration and Work)

Article excerpt

Shelbyville, Tenn., is an archetypal American working-class community of 16,000 people. Located 53 miles south of Nashville, it has one high school, one movie theater, six pawnbrokers and no parking meters. Its greatest claim to fame is the Tennessee Walking Horse, a smooth-gaited breed developed and tirelessly promoted locally. But far more visible are the 18-wheel tractor-trailers--each loaded with roughly 5,000 chickens in open metal crates--that rumble through town day and night. They're headed for the cavernous Tyson Foods plant on Shelbyville's west side, next to the Duck River. Tyson Foods Inc., based in Springdale, Ark., is the world's largest processor of chicken, beef and pork, with sales last year of $23.4 billion. With 1,100 employees at its Shelbyville plant, Tyson is also that city's largest employer.

In the mid-1990s, two Shelbyville police officers, Bill Logue and Don Barber, were puzzled by a series of curious incidents. An uncanny number of Hispanic motorists that they stopped for routine traffic violations were presenting obviously bogus driver's licenses or other fake IDs. The officers also were seeing a rash of freshly crumpled cars abandoned on Shelbyville streets. "There were a lot of car crashes with the driver leaving the scene, and there was no insurance on the vehicles," Logue told me when I visited Shelbyville recently.

Logue and Barber's inquiry into the false-ID cases pointed to Amador Anchondo-Rascon, a local Mexican American grocer and former Tyson employee, as a provider of illegal workers to Tyson. To widen the investigation, Logue and Barber sought help from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

When INS undercover agents posing as transporters of illegal aliens approached Anchondo-Rascon, he immediately enlisted them to work with him in supplying undocumented workers to Tyson. Anchondo-Rascon, who later pleaded guilty to various immigration-related offenses and served two years in prison, worked closely with the "transporters" for two-and-a-half years. Operation Everest, as the INS called the sting, resulted in the discovery of 154 illegal aliens being employed at five of Tyson's poultry plants in Oklahoma, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The deliveries were at the core of a 36-count federal indictment that prosecutors obtained against Tyson in December 2001. The company was charged in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga with having, among other things, engaged in an elaborate seven-year scheme to recruit hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala for its poultry plants in at least 12 states. Six of Tyson's mid-level executives or plant managers were also indicted. But in the end, even though Tyson was benefiting from illegal workers laboring in its plants, the executives avoided conviction.

It was the most ambitious criminal immigration case ever against an employer. Prosecutors demanded $100 million as a forfeiture penalty that they said represented the company's ill-gotten gains. The transcript for the six-and-a-half-week trial ran 5,464 pages. On March 26, the jury rendered its verdict: not guilty on all counts.

The sting had caught several Tyson managers or their assistants on audiotape and videotape plotting to recruit and hire illegal aliens for several plants, including the one at Shelbyville. Seven Tyson employees, whom the company eventually fired, had quietly pleaded guilty to immigration-related offenses.

During the late 1990s, Tyson employed 67,000 workers at 55 poultry plants. Court testimony established that a number of those workers were illegal, some hired directly and some through temp agencies. That was scarcely blockbuster news; many industries pay low wages for hard, dirty work and are staffed by illegal aliens.

It was more noteworthy that some managers at a company of Tyson's size and standing actively recruited large numbers of illegal immigrants. …