Immigrants and meat packing in rural Texas

A meat packing plant in Cactus, Texas, a tiny town in the state’s panhandle, has been staffed for some 40 years by a revolving stream of immigrants while native Americans take higher paying jobs in a refinery. This is an example of how immigrant labor complements, but does not compete with, native born Americans.

An ICE round up, Operation Wagon Train, on December 12, 2006 took 300 persons in the custody, 10% of the town’s population. Many were working in the Swift meat packing plant. Today the workers at the plant are almost entirely legal immigrants – not native-born Americans, according to the Washington Post. The plant, now owned by JBS USA, depends on refugees and Latinos. Moore County, where Cactus in located, voted 75% for Trump.

The jobs go for $17 an hour. Native Americans work for $30 an hour at a nearby oil refinery, where the jobs require more skills and fluent English.

“We don’t really see American people in these jobs,” said Lian Sian Piang, 34, a meat quality inspector and ethnic Chin who ran away from conscription in the Burmese army as a teenager, living for years in a Malaysian refugee camp. During his 10 years at the Cactus plant, he said, he has seen only “two or three white guys” cutting meat.

Immigrants have been butchering American meat since the 19th century, when Germans, Irish and Eastern Europeans crammed the Chicago stockyards. Wages in the packing industry increased with unionization and remained high relative to other manufacturing jobs between the 1930s and 1970s, a period of relatively low levels of immigration. But wages fell as companies began moving their plants out of urban areas and closer to feedlots, driving down union membership.

Vietnamese and Laotian refugees worked at the plant, then in the 1980s Mexicans, many undocumented. Then Guatemalans in the 1990s. More recently Somali refugees in such numbers that Moore County at one point had the fifth-highest per capita Muslim population in the United States. Now, a lot of Burmese refugees.

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