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.
Logue, a Shelbyville police officer for 13 years, says violent crimes remained steady during the influx of Hispanic immigrants, while misdemeanor offenses such as driving under the influence and hit-and-run collisions increased. "They learned that in Mexico if they hit someone and called the police, the police would beat them up or extort money from them," he says. Mexicans learn to view government authorities, including local police officers, more as abusive antagonists than public servants.
The most serious crimes to increase have been forgery and ID theft, both of which carry felony charges. Most immigrants arrested with false documents face such charges, but "99.9 percent" of them, according to Logue, are downgraded to misdemeanor charges because the courts simply cannot process that many felonies. Besides, the individual with false documents is not the law's main concern. "I'm not interested in prosecuting the little guy who comes across the border to build a better life," says Logue. Although he believes nearly all the immigrants who get false papers know they're breaking the law, the people he really wants to nab are the middlemen who provide false documents to the little guys.
You get what you pay for when purchasing false documents. A Social Security card or green card can be procured for as little as $100. Some are obvious fakes to anyone who's seen the genuine article before. A well-forged birth certificate and Social Security card may cost up to $1,500. Most of the Social Security cards Logue has seen are forged with numbers in a series not yet issued by the Social Security Administration (SSA), so a familiarity with issued numbers and a simple check reveal them as fakes. Better are cards with "good" numbers—ones already issued by the SSA to other individuals—that are stolen, purchased, or forged.
Matthew Baez of Esperanza del Barrio, a nonprofit group that provides social services for the Hispanic community in Chattanooga, says most undocumented Hispanic immigrants start cheap and trade up. A first set of documents might cost $100 and will be good enough to get a job in dry cleaning, landscaping, or construction. After a few weeks or months, an immigrant will have saved enough money to purchase higher-quality documents that will help him or her secure a better job.
Social Security cards with good numbers pass the scrutiny of screening systems, such as the one used by Tyson Foods, designed to catch illegal immigrants presenting false papers. Tyson claims to be one of the first large companies to use INS-provided software called the Employment Eligibility Verification Program, a.k.a. the Basic Pilot Program, to filter illegal immigrants out of its work force. Tyson started using the program in 1996.
According to the indictment against Tyson, "If the document, such as a Social Security card or a green card, provided by the employee was counterfeit but contained a true Social Security number or alien registration number issued to a real person of that name (even though the person supplying the card was an imposter and not the person stated on the card) it would pass the EVP/Basic Pilot Program, even though the card was counterfeit and was obtained illegally, as the defendants and the other coconspirators then and there well knew." The indictment quotes defendant Truly Ponder, former complex manager at Tyson's Shelbyville operation, saying to an INS undercover agent while arranging for new immigrant employees that applicants must provide documents that will "in the computer…look like they're good [Social Security] numbers."
Another defendant, Spencer Mabe, former complex personnel manager and former plant manager in Shelbyville, is quoted as saying to an INS undercover agent posing as a recruiter, "We can pay you $100 a head….All I need to know, a guarantee these people are going to stay a while….But I need about 15. Quick as you can. They're able to go through the computer, right?" The INS agent responded that his friend in California had "been getting some numbers….He probably, you know, can give me a good deal…good numbers." Mabe replied, "I understand that if they go through the [Tyson] computer like you said, there will be no questions asked on my end."
According to the indictment, Anchondo-Rascon would receive a "recruitment fee" of $200 per employee. He had to guarantee that the applicant's Social Security number would pass muster and that he would work at Tyson for at least six months. If the employee left early, Anchondo-Rascon would have to supply a replacement.
Another method by which Tyson allegedly conspired to hire illegal immigrants was by arranging for temporary workers to fill full-time slots without full-time benefits. The temp agencies did not use the Basic Pilot Program, and the indictment charges that Tyson knew many of the workers were not authorized for employment in the U.S.
Ironically, since the indictment for conspiracy to hire illegal immigrants, Tyson has been put on notice by another division of the Department of Justice for being too scrupulous in checking the legal status of immigrant applicants. The DOJ's Civil Rights Division sent letters to Tyson in May 2000 and January 2002 regarding its inquiry into allegations that the company's plants in Sedalia, Missouri, and Noel, Missouri—both of which are named in the conspiracy indictment—discriminated against immigrants by scrutinizing their employment verification documents too closely. It seems Tyson is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.
Tyson says it highly values the Hispanic immigrants who work at its plants. These immigrants are essential to the daily operations that put dinner on tables across America. Rebutting the claim that immigrants take jobs away from American workers, Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson says immigrants make up a substantial proportion of the company's work force only where unemployment is very low. He points to Tyson's Pine Bluff, Arkansas, plant as an example of a site where few immigrants work because the unemployment rate is relatively high, so local people take the jobs. In general, he says, "The Latino work force is not competing with the local available work force; they're augmenting it. Anybody who wants to work can work."
And here is where the crux of the INS's real problem lies. The U.S. demand for laborers is simply too high for Hispanic immigration to stop or even slow down. Anchondo-Rascon's attorney, Michael Friedman, who has represented many Latino immigrants, observes that getting a U.S. work visa in Mexico is a long and harrowing process. "If it was easy to do—if it was possible to do—believe me, they wouldn't be risking their lives to come here," he says.
Undocumented immigrants flow northward through a dangerous underground railroad, paying "coyotes" to escort them through the desert and past the Border Patrol's checkpoints. After they leave loved ones behind, pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and endure the physically demanding trip, there is still no guarantee of success, as Anchondo-Rascon can attest. He was caught and escorted back to Mexico by the Border Patrol the first time he made it to the U.S., when he was 16. But working through the legal process to be documented and immigrate legally is often an even more frustrating, expensive, and time-consuming process, also without assurance of success. As long as there are jobs to be had and workers south of the border making less than they can in the U.S., there will be immigration, whatever the law says.
"If there aren't jobs, people won't come," says Paul Portland, a Catholic priest in Shelbyville. "The jobs that the illegals do, the people here don't want to do. It's hard work….Ask anyone who employs Mexican workers—they're happy."
Portland came to Shelbyville a couple of years ago to lead St. William's Catholic Rectory. The diocese realized the little town needed a bilingual priest to serve the growing Hispanic population, about 95 percent of which grew up Catholic. The church offers four services during the week: two in English, one in Spanish, and one in both languages. As a bilingual leader of his congregation, Portland offers more than religious services. "I go to the hospital, to the doctor, to the drug store with people," he says.
The town lacks a social infrastructure for the Hispanic community, Portland says, and this contributes to immigrants' vulnerability, whether they have genuine documents or not. Services that Americans take for granted are daily struggles. Many who speak only Spanish save their money under the mattress because they don't trust banks or don't know how to communicate with bankers. They don't always report crimes when they are victimized or get medical care when they need it. Portland says the town needs more bilingual lawyers, doctors, firefighters, and police.
Portland scoffs at the notion that Hispanic immigrants come to this country to take advantage of government-sponsored social services. "People say they're not paying taxes, but that's baloney," he says. "They're paying sales tax. They're paying Social Security taxes, and they'll never see any of that. If they're illegal, they can't get it back."
Portland, who interacts daily with illegal immigrants, follows a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with his congregants. "They'd rather be at home, but they can't live there," he says. "People want jobs. People want to give jobs. We ought to find a way to let that happen where people aren't so vulnerable."
Tyson is charged with preferring illegal immigrants to documented workers because employees afraid of arrest and deportation are willing to put up with poor working conditions. The company is accused, for example, of giving illegal workers fewer bathroom breaks and forcing them to be more productive by moving conveyor belts faster. Illegal workers were less likely to complain to management, file a grievance with government agencies, seek workmen's compensation benefits, or be absent from work.
Villains or Victims?
Officer Logue believes intermediaries such as Amador Anchondo-Rascon are taking advantage of illegal immigrants. He sees them as ruthless gangsters who profit from the desperation of the undocumented. But Anchondo-Rascon can also be seen as another victim, a pawn in a high-stakes game that's played on a much larger scale than a small-time "crook" like him could imagine. Tyson has made millions in profits—$100 million, according to an INS estimate—with the help of hard-working immigrants who might not be in this country without Anchondo-Rascon's help. His thanks: the threat of deportation to the country he began struggling to escape as a teenager.
The INS makes Tyson out to be the bad guy: a big corporate bully anxious to hire illegal immigrants because they will work harder for longer hours and accept substantially less pay than legal residents or U.S. citizens. But those who understand how markets work may not be so quick to condemn Tyson. As the indictment emphasizes, the company desperately needed workers for jobs that most Americans won't take. Someone has to do the dirty work of transforming a live bird into a boneless, skinless chicken breast.
Most Americans probably would not fault the undocumented immigrants themselves for making the hard choice to come to the U.S. After all, they simply want to work and build better lives for their families. They're more than willing to travel thousands of miles, work backbreaking shifts six or seven days a week for meager pay, and send a good deal of their earnings home in order to slowly piece together their own American dream. Most of the immigrants who have left Shelbyville since the Tyson indictment are not headed back to Mexico. They are still looking for better opportunities.
Friedman, Anchondo-Rascon's attorney, says he hopes the Tyson case will spur the government to take "the action that President Bush and [Mexican] President [Vicente] Fox outlined in August to document these workers—give them status, give them recourse, and protect them." Last summer a White House task force on immigration headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft went so far as to suggest amnesty for the 4 million or so undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. When he met with Bush last August, Fox pressed for reform by the end of the year. Then came the attacks of September 11.
Some Republicans have always seen amnesties for undocumented workers as undeserved rewards to people who manage to get away with breaking laws that others patiently obey. Since last fall these opponents have been joined by others who cite terrorism as a reason to be leery of any effort to liberalize immigration policies. (Never mind that terrorists from Mexico do not loom large as threats to U.S. security.) After the House of Representatives voted in March to extend an existing program that allows undocumented workers with relatives in the U.S. to seek green cards without leaving the country, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) promised to block a vote on the measure in the Senate. "It is lunacy—sheer lunacy—that the president would request, and the House would pass, such an amnesty at this time," he said. Bush hoped to bring an extended visa program for Mexicans living in the U.S. to the table when he met with President Fox in late March, but the House-approved measure remained stalled in the Senate.
While it may be slow in coming, the prospects for reform are better than they've been in recent memory. Bush seems to understand and embrace the simple idea that Mexicans deserve economic opportunity—in the sense of freedom to engage in voluntary, productive exchange—as much as anyone born north of the Rio Grande. As White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said at a press conference last summer, "There are people who are already in this country, contributing to the American economy, even though they may not be legal, and they are paying taxes. As a result of their labor and their efforts, Americans are able to enjoy many aspects of life….The president wants to make certain that if there is a willing employer who needs a willing worker, we have immigration policies that respect that arrangement."
Anchondo-Rascon hopes to return to Shelbyville and rebuild business at Los Tres Hermanos, which has been slumping since his arrest. He still believes in the Land of Opportunity. "I think America is the greatest country in the world," he says. "We have to work seven days a week, 10 hours a day, but that's OK—as long as we have a good future for our family."
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