Producers, Consumers and …Raids

By Donna R. Gabaccia, Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota

The main immigration story last week was a string of “raids? on Swift meat-packing plants that employ foreigners working who lack proper documentation. It’s a rare occasion when staid New York Times reporters and radical bloggers agree about anything. Yet most everyone writing about these events agreed they were “raids.?

The word “raids? packs plenty of emotion. So did much of the commentary these “raids? inspired.

Raids are surprise attacks or forcible entry by a small armed force or the police, in this case by the I.C.E. (agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Swift & Company officials and undocumented workers undoubtedly were surprised by this federal show of force. But did federal immigration agents really have to force their way into factories where the arrests were made? Of course not. There was no armed resistance in the meat-packing plants. No blood was shed.

Still, commentators agreed on the military metaphor. For a federal administration that has been under criticism for months for its failures to “defend? U.S. borders, public acceptance of the recent action as decisive and forceful, must have been satisfying. The administration that introduced Americans to “shock and awe? in the Middle East has now done the same in the Middle West.

“Raids? are undertaken either to destroy property or to steal it. Think of air raids. Or of a popular bug killer. The vicious commentary on last week’s raids suggests that some Americans would welcome the death of those characterized as “illegal aliens.? Fortunately, no one died in the I.C.E. raids.

In a corporate setting, raids have special, but equally emotional, meaning. They are attempts to seize control of a company by acquiring a majority of its stock. Or they are predatory operations aimed to lure competitors’ workers or drive down their stock prices. No corporation wants to the object of a raid.

Swift & Company certainly felt under attack last week. Company representatives complained of difficulties in complying with federal law. They suggested their rights as producers—which include the right to purchase the labor of workers on a free market—were under attack. And they hinted at consequences for American consumers in the form of higher prices for meat.

Privately they also wondered, I suspect, why their company had been singled out for raids. Why had I.C.E. agents not raided construction sites, where foreigners without documents also work by the thousands? Why not hotels? Why not restaurant kitchens? Why not the hundreds of thousands of American homes where immigrant women, also without proper documentation, work as cleaners and nannies? Buying “illegal? labor and the goods that “illegal? labor produces has become as ubiquitously American as apple pie. Why should the meat-packing industry alone suffer the loss of its workers?

Raids by government agents have historically also targeted illicit substances—alcohol raids during prohibition or on college campuses; drug raids in American cites or along the border. Between 1918 and 1921 the so-called “Palmer Raids? (named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer) also targeted immigrants--by breaking up the offices of the radical organizations they supported—and then deporting them.

Such raids have also targeted the producers or retailers of the illicit substances or ideas, rather than their consumers (or readers). It’s useful to ponder the illicit substance sought during last week’s raids and to identify those producing, selling, and buying it.

I.C.E. agents claimed the illicit substance was fake documents, representing the identities of hundreds of Americans, on whose behalf the I.C.E. acted. Unfortunately, few newspapers reported the numbers of foreign workers actually found in possession of such documents. I searched in vain for reports about Swift & Company workers who had stolen American identities or produced false documents.

What I learned was that most had purchased the documents. Here in Minnesota, reporters noted, and even visited and photographed, the places where false IDs, or “micas? were on sale: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2006/12/13/fakedocs
I.C.E. had not raided those markets. It had not targeted the producers or the thieves themselves. Apparently, it had not deported them.

Instead, coverage of the raids focused on the fat that that hundreds of Swift & Company workers were in the country illegally and soon would be deported. Apparently, the workers and their labor-- not the documents or the stolen identities themselves-- were the illicit substances that most mattered to I.C.E. agents. They were the substance being “raided? in meat-packing plants last week.

If the purchase of illicit substances justifies raids such as those last week and if those illicit substances include human labor, then I.C.E. agents might not stop with raids at Swift & Company. Perhaps American consumers—and not just purchasers of Swift meat products--should expect a visit from the I.C.E. in the near future.
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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Sylvie Thao published on December 18, 2006 12:23 PM.

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