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Editorial: Poultry plants need workers, and immigration solutions should take that into account
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A couple walks along Monroe Drive at Fieldale Farms on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. - photo by Scott Rogers

Back during the days of the Cold War, when communist nations were generally accepted by Americans as proof of evil in the world, Hollywood movies set in totalitarian regimes inevitably had a scene where a totally innocent person was confronted by gun-carrying government authority with a demand to “Show me your papers!”

Freedom-loving American audiences would recoil at the thought, secure in the knowledge that such a scene would never play out in real life in the United States and that hardworking people would never be taken into custody and forced to prove the legitimacy of their existence.

ICE raids on Mississippi chicken plants in six different towns resulted in the arrest of about 680 people thought to be working illegally in this country. Some 300 of those were later released for a variety of reasons, including the need to get home to their children.

Inevitably the ICE action in Mississippi reverberated across the nation, and certainly resulted in unease here in the Poultry Capital of the World. On Thursday, rumors that similar raids were taking place in local poultry plants resulted in a flashfire of gossip-fueled fear by those afraid they, too, might be rounded up and taken into custody, their jobs, families and lives threatened.

That the rumors were not true at the time did little to help the local mood, as all concerned know that similar actions may still take place at any time locally.

On social media, those for whom illegal immigration is a defining issue were quick to note that illegal workers should be rounded up, should be deported, should be punished. That any such effort would undoubtedly affect the innocent as well as the guilty was not a consideration for most who cheered the ICE actions.

Is that the nation we want to be?

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

Some points for consideration:

  • Those rounded up in the ICE raids were at work. Not engaged in criminal activity. Not plotting acts of terrorism. Not masterminds of criminal enterprises. They were at work.

  • American agribusiness, including the poultry industry, is dependent upon the labor of a workforce that often includes illegal immigrants. That’s just a fact. If the immigrant employees go away, the jobs don’t get done. Locally, plants can’t hire enough people. These immigrants are not taking jobs away from anyone. They are serving a vital need in keeping the local economy going, and have done so for many, many years.

  • The federal government refuses to fix the problem. The poultry plants in Mississippi, and those locally, use the government’s own E-verify system to vet potential employees. But the system doesn’t work. For several years, poultry industry leaders have, in fact, recommended and supported improvements to E-Verify so that it would do a better job of weeding out illegal immigrants. Those changes have not been made.

That last point is perhaps the most onerous of all. Politicians in Washington have proven they do not want to resolve the immigration issue. They would rather have it as a defining point of political positioning than make legitimate efforts to fix the problem. Both political parties are to blame for doing nothing year after year after, and both are afraid that any effort at compromise to find a solution is a sign of political weakness.

It has been more than 30 years since Ronald Reagan proposed sweeping immigration reform with an effort that was supposed to tighten border security, impose stiff penalties on companies for hiring illegals, and grant amnesty to some 3 million illegal immigrants living in the country. The amnesty happened, the rest was lost in the haze of Washington politics. Have we advanced the cause in those 30 years; are we any better off than we were?

No, we do not believe in having totally open borders. Yes, there are those who need to be deported. But at some point we also have to face the reality that there are millions of illegal immigrants who are a legitimate part of our nation’s fabric, and accept them as such.

Agribusiness needs immigrant labor. There needs to be an intelligent guest worker visa program that would allow employment demands to be met by a workforce the federal government will accept as legitimate.

One such proposal is the H-2C Visa that has been discussed for the past couple of years. It would set wage standards so that immigrant workers can’t be hired at a rate so low as to keep nonimmigrants from having jobs; spell out efforts that have to be taken to make sure immigrant workers qualify; and limit the numbers of immigrants who could be awarded such a visa. Critics have said the effort is too business friendly and punitive toward employees, and so far that effort has not found a path to political approval.

But whether it’s H-2C or something else, the need for a new visa program seems to be as obvious as the reality that the current system is rife for exploitation, and the constant pitting of “us” against “them” has resulted in a social and national crisis of epic proportions.

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