Ask about the chicken plant and voices drop to a whisper.
Point to the steaming towers at the bottom of Tyson Road and nobody wants to talk.
Here in Ashland, population 2,400, there’s a gristle-tough loyalty to Tyson Foods, the world’s largest poultry company and the biggest employer for miles around.
“When they’re the ones with the paychecks, you don’t ask questions and you don’t talk bad,” Mike Wadsworth, a longtime Ashland resident, explained Thursday. After the North American Free Trade Agreement, “Tyson was the only big company to stick around.”
Wadsworth and others here said they were disappointed--but not surprised--that Tyson managers had been implicated in a human smuggling ring that included the Ashland chicken plant. According to an investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Tyson managers helped recruit undocumented immigrants and provide them with false Social Security cards so they could work the grueling, low-wage chicken line jobs that most locals won’t do.
“It was kind of an open secret that Tyson was helping ship these guys in,” said one Ashland city employee who was fearful of being quoted by name. “How else would they get from the middle of Mexico to the middle of nowhere?”
Most of the 15 Tyson plants named in the federal indictment unsealed on Wednesday are in quiet, two-stoplight towns such as this, places clinging to economic life in an increasingly high-tech, frenetic age. There’s an understandable sense of gratitude and fear when it comes to dealing with the town provider.
Ex-Employee Says Bosses Checked Credentials
Jose, a 40-year-old Mexican immigrant who is legally in the U.S., used to snap live chickens to hooks at the Ashland poultry plant, standing in wet shoes on a concrete floor for eight hours straight. He was paid $6 an hour. Tyson managers were “hard-core” about checking work credentials, he said.
“They always asked us for our Social Security cards,” said Jose, who didn’t want to give his full name.
Tyson officials say the alleged misdeeds in the recent indictment were “limited to a few managers” acting outside of company policy.
But in 1997, there was a harbinger of the case to come. INS agents swooped down on the Ashland plant and netted 105 undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. At the time, the Ashland police chief welcomed the raid, saying, “The town was becoming overrun with illegal aliens.”
Many Latinos who process chickens are recruited in Mexico and with the help of a smuggler, follow the “chicken trail” to factories in the South and Midwest.
Siomara Ferrer, a Cuban American who recently quit a job at the plant, said a Tyson manager in Ashland had a reputation for helping smuggle illegal immigrants.
“They told us he had been fired for what he did,” said Ferrer, 36. “But then again, they lied to us all the time, about who was Mexican, American, Guatemalan, etc.”
Changing Demographics in South Foster Tension
Ashland, in a way, is a case study of the demographically changing South. Ten years ago, in this quiet town 80 miles east of Birmingham, there were no Latinos to speak of. Now there are hundreds. The number of Latinos in Alabama is still small--about 76,000 in a state of 4.4 million--but their population has tripled in the last decade.
There are now several specialty grocery stores in the Ashland area, Latino Catholic churches and even a bona fide Mexican restaurant.
There’s no escaping the company-town aspect of a place such as Ashland.
At lunchtime, diners are filled with men in tan uniforms, the distinctive maroon and yellow Tyson logo sewn on their chest. Tractor-trailers roll past the brick courthouse with “Tyson--The choice your family deserves” painted on the side.
All around, the soft green hills framed by pine forests are dotted with chicken farms providing birds to Tyson, which is based in Springdale, Ark. There are 57 Tyson plants nationwide.
If the presence of a large number of undocumented immigrants was not news to those in Ashland, it did surprise others in Alabama.
“We are so familiar with the horror stories we hear about how people die coming across the borders and to know Tyson was involved in doing that is just beyond awful,” said Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Central Alabama in Birmingham. “It’s horrific.”
She added that it’s unclear how the indictment against Tyson, which sells $24 billion worth of chicken a year, will affect the rising influx of Latino workers in the South.
But, she said, “it’s definitely going to impact the price of chicken.”
Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this report.