On December 12, the United States government carried out the largest nationwide operation against illegal immigrants at their workplaces in U.S. history, arresting 1,300 people at six meat-packing plants owned by the Swift Company. The government later charged some 200 of the people detained with identity theft and other charges, but most of the illegal aliens were deported. The raid on the Swift plant in Cactus, Texas, a small town in the Texas panhandle, opened the way to a lawsuit by 18 former Swift employees who claim they were fired by Swift as part of a company scheme to suppress wages by hiring illegal immigrants. VOA's Greg Flakus went to Cactus to find out more and filed this report.
The immigration raid in Cactus resulted in the deportation of close to 300 people, who are no longer here to pay rent or shop in such places as this butcher shop run by Carlos Perez.
He says he has lost 50 percent of his business since the December raid and his only hope now is that new workers will eventually come to town and shop in his store.
New workers are coming. Swift has raised the starting salary for line workers and has drawn people from nearby towns, but the company says the raid here and its other five plants in the West and Midwest resulted in a $30 million loss.
The raid at the Cactus plant created a momentary crisis for the community of around 3,000 people. Many children and spouses of deported workers were left behind in distress. The local Catholic church stepped in to help, providing family members with a shelter.
Orlando Gajardo is one of the volunteers who has helped the families of deported workers. He says most of the families have gone elsewhere now, and local businesses all over the north Texas panhandle are feeling the loss.
"A lot of the business owners here, as far south as Amarillo and as far north as Guyman [Oklahoma], a lot of the businesses are affected pretty bad," he said.
Gajardo says he helped the families out of a sense of charity. But he is not sympathetic towards Swift and what he claims was the company's preference for hiring illegal immigrants over local people.
"It just amazed me how many illegal immigrants were working there and it basically pissed me off because I had a lot of friends who wanted to work there and who were better qualified as far as physique, but they were denied so many times," he said.
Swift company spokesmen deny that plants knowingly hired illegal workers, but the allegation that they did is at the heart of a lawsuit filed by 18 former workers at the Cactus plant. They claim Swift fired them after they sustained work-related injuries and hired illegal aliens, mostly from Guatemala, to take their place at a much lower rate of pay, thereby suppressing wages.
One of the plaintiffs is Blanca Valenzuela.
"There is no anger for my part towards the Guatemalans. It is anger towards the company because they did this. They gave them our jobs. They took food off our tables and put food on their table. We lost our homes," she said.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit say wages at the Swift plant in Cactus fell from about $20 an hour to roughly $12 an hour since the plant was opened more than 30 years ago because the company hired illegal immigrants. Blanca Valenzuela also alleges that the company abused these workers, who, because of their illegal status, were reluctant to fight back.
"The only difference between us and them is that we know how to defend ourselves and they do not. We are not in the situation they are in money-wise. They want to support their families and all that, so they will do what they put them to do and they will work very hard to make that money, you know," she said.
Valenzuela, who was a union representative at the plant when she worked there, says she tried to help some of the workers understand their rights. But she said communicating with them was difficult because many of the Guatemalans came from indigenous groups in the highlands of that Central American nation and spoke no English and very little Spanish.
The Colorado-based Swift company and H. M. Capital Partners, the Dallas investment firm that owns it, say the lawsuit is "completely without merit." Spokesmen say the plaintiffs have no evidence to support their case.
Swift says the company has been cooperating with federal authorities since the investigation began 10 months ago, long before the raids took place. It says the company used the pilot program for identifying the legal status of workers provided by the U.S. government and note that there have been no criminal charges filed against the company or its managers.