New INS Operation Targets Nebraska Meat Industry

By Malcolm, Teresa | National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

New INS Operation Targets Nebraska Meat Industry


Malcolm, Teresa, National Catholic Reporter


In an unusual show of agreement among groups often at odds, immigrant, church, business and union leaders are voicing opposition to a new program targeting illegal immigrants employed in Nebraska's meatpacking industry.

Initially called Operation Prime Beef when it was announced in September by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the program is designed to root out undocumented workers by a comprehensive investigation of the employment eligibility records of all meatpacking employees in Nebraska. Critics, arguing from different points of view, charge that such sweeping measures would severely disrupt immigrant communities, meatpacking plants and Nebraska's economy.

Community leaders have also said that the program, by targeting an industry that is highly reliant on Mexican and Central American immigrant labor, is racist and anti-immigrant.

The program is "a new standard of making a human being be unwanted, unappreciated, undesired, unwelcome and unloved," said a statement from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the predominantly Hispanic area of South Omaha.

The INS said the program, now called Operation Vanguard following protests from some who saw the "Prime Beef" name as dehumanizing and offensive, is "a shift in the way the INS approaches the problem of unauthorized workers in Nebraska's meatpacking industry."

Instead of occasional raids on plants, "the agency is aiming to remove the magnet that initially draws them to the Midwest -- employment."

The INS estimates that magnet has drawn at least 25 percent of the Nebraska meatpacking work force from undocumented immigrants. Operation Vanguard, by targeting every Nebraska meat processing plant during a four-month period, hopes to "freeze out" the illegal workers it does not catch. Plants in Council Bluffs and Sioux City, Iowa, are also included in the INS program.

Removing the magnet

Even INS officials acknowledge, however, that undocumented workers scared off by Operation Vanguard will not return to their countries of origin. For the INS, removing the magnet of employment in the meatpacking industry, rather than arresting and deporting individuals, is the goal of Operation Vanguard.

"It is expected that many employees who lack valid work authorization will resign prior to the INS visit," the INS said in its September announcement. However, when interviews are scheduled with employees who stay, "the INS may apprehend undocumented aliens encountered during the visit."

If successful, the program could be expanded to meatpacking plants in the surrounding states of Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota. "The ultimate objective is to open up jobs for people working legally," Jerry Heinauer, director of the INS district office in Omaha, told NCR.

But some say finding those legal workers will be tough for meatpacking jobs that are difficult and dangerous, and in a state where unemployment is at about 3 percent.

One meatpacking manager told The Omaha World-Herald, "If they've got a pulse, we'll take an application. We're really strapped from time to time. We've got such high turnover, as much of our industry does."

The American Meat Institute, a national organization representing meat slaughterers and processors and their suppliers, said that turnover requires employers to hire two or three trainees to fill one job vacancy long-term.

Critics also say Operation Vanguard will negatively affect the economies of Nebraska and Iowa, both heavily dependent on agriculture. Beyond the plants directly involved, consequences of the operation could reach into related businesses, from livestock and grain producers to truckers.

"It does surprise me that the state of Nebraska is not more incensed," said a meatpacking industry official, who requested anonymity. "If the INS is right and 25 percent of the industry's workers are illegal, if production of beef subsides by 25 percent, it would show up Monday morning -- everything will curtail by 25 percent. …

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