A modern tale of meatpacking and immigrants


Hawa Farah was living in Minneapolis three years ago making $8 an hour at a bakery when her fiance, Hussein Hussein, got a call about good jobs that paid better.

So the couple, like many Somali immigrants who follow work around the country, headed 600 miles southwest to Nebraska, state slogan: “The Good Life.”

They settled in Grand Island, a blue-collar railroad town on the flat Midwestern prairie. They got married and brightened their worn apartment with plastic flowers and colorful rugs. Hussein, 33, began working the early shift on the “kill” side of the local meatpacking plant. Farah, 24, took a job on the “fabrication” side, trimming fat from brisket.

The promise of better pay was true enough.

But the good life would prove elusive. The young couple didn’t know the plant’s history and what it would mean for them.

A magnet for immigrants

It was still dark when dozens of federal agents, guns drawn, swept into the gray, windowless buildings at Swift & Co. just before Christmas 2006.

They were Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents taking part in a six-state sting, and they had warrants to search for undocumented workers.

Like most of the nation’s slaughterhouses, the Grand Island plant had always been a revolving door for immigrants.

Meatpacking is hard, dangerous work; the Department of Labor says it results in more injuries than any other trade. But it doesn’t require workers to speak English, and in Grand Island it pays a starting wage of $12.25 an hour.

Ads placed in immigrant newspapers across the country had drawn war refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and from Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.

Most made some money and moved on.

But many Latino immigrants, who started arriving in large numbers in the 1980s, stayed. They launched Spanish-language radio programs, founded churches, set up taco trucks. And unlike earlier immigrants who were legal refugees recognized by the U.S. government, many Latinos had crossed the border illegally.

When immigration agents came to town in 2006, Latinos comprised up to 11% of Grand Island’s 45,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the day of the raid, agents detained more than 200 of the plant’s 2,500 workers. Another 200 Latinos from the evening shift, apparently fearful of deportation, promptly quit.

In town the raid triggered an eruption of resentment.

When Latinos marched in protest afterward, some townspeople lined the streets with a counter-demonstration, holding signs that read, “Go back to Mexico, wetbacks.” The local newspaper was filled with venomous letters to the editor decrying Latino immigration.

“A lot of people don’t like the Latinos, they just don’t,” said Jeff Fulton, a Grand Island native who has worked at the plant for 25 years. Latinos faced more discrimination than previous immigrants because they had put down roots, he said. One only had to drive down 4th Street, past La Solomera Guatemalan import store and El Tazumal Mexican restaurant, to see their influence.

“There has been more bigotry,” Fulton said, “because there has just been more and more and more of them.”

The emotions unleashed by the raid would soon find a new target -- Sudanese and Somalis attracted by the promise of work at the meatpacking plant.

The new immigrants, who had been granted refugee status because of strife in their homelands, posed new challenges to the status quo in Grand Island.

They were black, and some were Muslim.

A new kind of different

During each shift, at sundown, Farah asks her supervisor if she can put down her knives and go to the bathroom. Sometimes, if there are enough other trimmers to cover for her, the boss says yes.

Farah stands at the sink in the company locker room, away from the drone of the factory floor. She washes her hands, her face, her arms and her feet, turns northeast to face Mecca and begins to pray.

When the Somalis began arriving in 2007, supervisors learned that some of the more devout workers prayed five times a day, and that the sundown prayer fell before the plant’s regularly scheduled 15-minute break. For the most part, they looked the other way.

That changed in 2008, during Ramadan, when virtually all the Muslim workers began leaving the assembly line en masse to pray. Even Muslims who are not particularly religious often make an effort to pray during the holy month.

Co-workers complained that they had to pick up the slack. Management told the Somalis they couldn’t pray because the plant, one of the largest in the country, couldn’t afford to stop the machines. Five hundred Muslim workers, infuriated, walked off the job.

Most came back after Swift & Co. agreed to accommodate them by changing break times.

But other workers protested that the Muslims had gotten preferential treatment, an idea fueled by a story published in a local Spanish-language newspaper that falsely claimed the Somalis had gotten a pay raise. Fights broke out in the lunch room. Hundreds of Latinos -- joined by the Sudanese, who are mostly Christian -- walked off the job.

Major conflict at the plant let up when Ramadan ended. But tensions in town mounted like never before.

At the Autumn Woods apartments on the southeast side of town, police were called several times a day to respond to stabbings, shootings and disputes.

A war was building between the Somalis, who lived on one side of the complex, and the Sudanese, who lived on the other side.

“It’s chaotic anarchy,” Police Chief Steve Lamken said recently.

In late August 2009, a Sudanese man was shot in the head at the apartment complex. Police arrested three Somalis in connection with the killing.Officer Robert Winton blamed the fighting on the Africans’ violent homelands. “They’re at war in their countries and they bring it here,” he said.

Violent crimes in Grand Island have risen in the last two years and the community, surrounded by cornfields, now faces a gang problem.

Fidencio Sandoval and his wife, Herminda, two meatpacking workers who were born in Mexico but are now U.S. citizens, worry about the violence.

They moved here in 1997, bought a house on a quiet street lined with sycamore and maple trees, and paid it off 10 years later.

“When I first came I thought this is a nice, quiet town, this may be a nice place to retire,” Fidencio said. “But the way it’s going now, I’m not sure.”

Mayor Margaret Hornady said she frequently heard complaints about the changes recent immigrants had wrought.

“People say, ‘Mayor, close down Swift, kick ‘em out of town. All of our problems would be gone,’ ” she said.

Hornady said she had been “unsettled” by the presence of Somali women wearing head scarves. “It is startling,” she said. “It’s not what we’re used to.”

Just weeks after what she now terms “the Ramadan fiasco,” Hornady made comments in the local and national media that the town’s Somali leaders found offensive. As a peace offering, she issued an open invitation to all Somali women to attend a luncheon at her City Hall office.

She bought roses, ordered cucumber sandwiches and brought in her mother’s silver tea service. Twelve men and six women showed up. Hornady was offended.

The event proved to her that the Somalis think life in Grand Island “is not good enough,” Hornady said. “Well, it’s what we’ve got.”

She said it would take time for Grand Island to adjust to its immigrants, and vice-versa.

Attempting to integrate

There have been some attempts to foster unity in town.

Several groups offer free English classes and the city-funded Multicultural Coalition -- headed by a Latino woman who once worked at the plant -- helps connect new immigrants with social services.

The school district, where 15 years ago 90% of students were white and today 50% are, has reached out to immigrants to get their children enrolled.

But some Somalis decided Grand Island was no longer the place for them. After the Ramadan dispute, hundreds left town. Many moved to Lexington, an hour away, where the Tyson chicken plant pays less but is known for being more accommodating to Muslims.

Hawa Farah and Hussein Hussein aren’t sure if they’ll leave.

Last year, Ramadan did not trigger major conflict at the Grand Island plant, in large part because the Somalis had made arrangements with management beforehand.

Still, Farah and Hussein say they are frustrated by how co-workers treat them.

“They humiliate us like we are children,” Farah said.

Farah said she her husband must keep working in order to support their families in Africa. “When we came here, it was not to relax,” she said.Meanwhile, the company, which has since changed its name to JBS USA, has been grasping for employees once again.

Early last year, a man in Cuba named Jose Viol got a call from a friend in Miami.

The friend said recruiters from a meatpacking plant in Nebraska were looking for laborers. They would pay for three days of work what Viol could make all year in Cuba.

So he and his girlfriend got on a boat, fled Cuba for Mexico and crossed into the United States at the Texas border. They were granted refugee status and made their way to Miami, where they met up with other Cubans heading for Grand Island.

Seven hundred of them arrived in town last spring.