Amador Anchondo-Rascon speaks in a low, soft voice, switching so fluidly from English to Spanish that I'm surprised when I suddenly don't understand what he's saying. Although he has lived in this country for more than two decades and speaks fluent English, he gives the impression that he's more comfortable speaking the Spanish he grew up with in Cuauhtemoc, Mexico. Wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, he sits at a table in a Chattanooga, Tennessee, jailhouse, speaking with small gestures of his cuffed hands and fiddling with an invisible cigarette. He swears he doesn't smoke or drink, but he will admit to helping friends and relatives cross the border illegally.
Anchondo-Rascon is a soft-spoken family man, a community leader, and a felon. He has spent most of the last two years in jail, first in Texas, then in Tennessee, both times charged with transportation of illegal aliens. The latest charges also include conspiracy to provide false documents. He pleaded guilty to these charges as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors that will cap his sentence at five years in exchange for his testimony against Tyson Foods and six current and former employees of the company.
Because Anchondo-Rascon is a key witness in a case much larger than his own, he hopes he will be able to strike a bargain that lets him return to his life in Shelbyville, Tennessee, where he and his wife, Robertina, own and operate a Hispanic grocery store. At best, he may be able to go home after being sentenced to time served. At worst, he may be deported to Mexico. (A sentencing hearing was scheduled for May 20.)
According to an indictment filed last December in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, Tyson Foods made a regular practice of hiring illegal aliens for several plants, including a fresh chicken processing plant in Shelbyville. Anchondo-Rascon allegedly acted as a recruiter of immigrants for the plant, working with Tyson managers to maintain a flow of employees from Mexico. The plant always needed laborers, and there was a steady supply of immigrants who were ready and willing to take the jobs. Since the indictment against Tyson, about 200 immigrants have lost their jobs at the 1,200-employee Tyson plant in Shelbyville, a town with a population of about 16,000.
The indictment of the world's largest poultry producer on charges that it conspired to import undocumented laborers has brought renewed attention to the immigration problem -- not the problem of religious zealots with bombs in their shoes but the lower-profile one posed by millions of people who come to the United States to do our dirty work. The Bush administration has pushed Congress to extend a program that makes it easier for some of these people to get resident alien ("green") cards, and the president has signaled that he may be open to a broader amnesty for illegal immigrants or an expanded guest-worker program. But the Tyson case, which has received national attention, makes it clear that many people -- Americans and Mexicans, powerful executives and poor immigrants -- feel they can't afford to wait for changes in the law.
Anchondo-Rascon's story is like those of many who have come to the U.S. from Mexico in search of a better life. After years of hard work and perseverance, he managed to buy a house, start a business, and raise a family. His entrepreneurial instincts also drew him to a market niche created by immigration laws that block the free flow of human capital.
In 1979 Anchondo-Rascon, then 21, walked across the border into New Mexico. He walked 240 miles through the desert, a trip that took about 10 days. He left a job that paid well by local standards, in a Mexican oil refinery where he made $20 to $30 a week. When he arrived in the U.S., he began hoeing cotton and doing irrigation work in New Mexico for $35 to $40 a day. He moved to Florida before settling in Tennessee, where he has lived since 1986. He worked in the tree nurseries in McMinnville with his brother until he heard about the better-paying jobs at Tyson.
The Tyson Foods plant in nearby Shelbyville hired Anchondo-Rascon in 1989 to debone and pack chicken. He worked hard and was promoted to supervisor. In 1995 Anchondo-Rascon figured that his little town, where Latino immigrants were pouring in, was ripe for a Hispanic grocery store. He left Tyson to open Los Tres Hermanos with $1,500 in savings. When the store opened, corn flour for making tortillas was its sole product, but it quickly grew to offer a wide range of Hispanic groceries, music, and other imports. Anchondo-Rascon's brother-in-law opened a similar store in McMinnville.
Shelbyville lies in Bedford County, Tennessee, which has about 38,000 residents, 7.5 percent of them Latinos. From 1990 to 2000, the county's Hispanic population grew by 1,500 percent. Bedford County is a microcosm of immigration from Mexico, the leading source of both legal and illegal immigrants to the U.S. In addition to the 91,000 legal Mexican immigrants who arrive each year, the Census Bureau estimates there are nearly 4 million illegal Mexican immigrants in this country.
The flow of immigrants from south of the border has changed the face of Shelbyville. Los Tres Hermanos, which serves as an orientation center for newcomers as well as a grocery store, has been a part of that transformation. As an interpreter, Anchondo-Rascon was invaluable to those who needed to go to court, translate documents, or get license plates, and he became a leader in the Hispanic community. He maintained friendly ties with proprietors of various businesses in town, such as Celebration City Motors, where he bought a car when he first arrived. Anchondo-Rascon developed a good relationship with the owner by paying off his debt ahead of schedule, and he recommended newcomers he considered good credit risks to the car dealership, which was happy to have the business.
Hispanic immigrants to Shelbyville, who included Guatemalans as well as Mexicans, had no problem finding work. Most were hired by the town's largest employer, Tyson, where about half the current work force is Hispanic. They didn't need to speak English well to work on the line processing chicken, and the pay, which was higher than minimum wage and included health insurance, was better than the pay in pencil manufacturing, the other dominant local industry.
The Hispanic influx continued unabated throughout the 1990s, but it abruptly reversed after an 18-month investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) culminated in a 36-count indictment against Tyson in December 2001. Since the indictment, hundreds of Hispanics have left Shelbyville, having lost their jobs or fearing deportation. Amador Anchondo-Rascon has landed in jail, while his worried wife tries to keep the family business going.
Bill Logue, the Shelbyville officer who handles most police business with the local immigrant population, arrested Anchondo-Rascon in July 2000. He was acting on behalf of the U.S. Border Patrol, which wanted the grocer on immigrant-smuggling charges unrelated to the Tyson case. Logue had seen increasing numbers of immigrants presenting false documents in traffic stops and investigations of domestic disturbances. He had a couple of leads that made him suspect Anchondo-Rascon. When asked where they got false documents, some immigrants would mutter "Los Tres Hermanos."
In 1998 an immigrant caught with fake identification during a traffic stop agreed to help police collect evidence against Anchondo-Rascon. The man walked into Los Tres Hermanos wearing a police wire and asked if he could get a Social Security card and a resident alien card. Anchondo-Rascon told the man he should come back with a photograph and $200. The whole process took a couple of weeks, longer than usual.