Steve Striffler’s highly informative book, “Chicken: the dangerous transformation of America’s favorite food”, gives the story behind the indictment and trial of three Tyson Food executives for systematically hiring illegal Hispanic immigrants. I will relate in skeletal form the story. It starts with the arrival of a 20 year old man from Chihuahua into the U.S. in 1979, runs through the poultry industry boom in the 1990s, the federal indictment of and subsequent jury vote in favor of Tyson Foods, and a current effort to sue Tyson for RICO violations.
1979 – 1989
Amador Anchondo-Rascon slips over the border, is arrested after a ten day hike, deported, and slips into the U.S. again. He begins work in Florida, marries an American citizen, and becomes a legal resident. In 1989 he moves to Shelbyville, Tennessee, where there is a Tyson Foods’ poultry processing plant. Pay there is higher than in farm work. He starts working at the plant
The United States experiences a huge boom in poultry. Russell Cobb, a PhD. grad student, writes that
In 1990, the U.S. exported 500,000 metric tons of chicken overseas, while in the year 2000 that figure increased five-fold to 2,500,000, as China and Russia became the two largest consumers of U.S. chicken.
In this decade the Hispanic population in Shelbyville grows from 100 to 2,300, or 15% of the population. This growth pace is typical of numerous rural locations from North Carolina to Arkansas. As black and white workers moved up the economic ladder, Hispanics filled in the gap. Not all were in meat processing (poultry in the south, beef and pork in the Midwest). In North Carolina, for instance, 90% of farmworkers were Hispanic. Poultry towns absorbing large numbers of Hispanics were Shelbyville, TN, Roger, Arkansas, Russellville, Arkansas, and Duplin County, north Carolina (for turkeys).
This rush of Hispanics creates entrepreneurial opportunities.
1995 – 1998.
Leaving the employ of Tyson, Amador opens in Shelbyville a grocery, Los Tres Hermanos, He begins to sell fake social security cards and other fake documents. Two local police officers take notice. They contact the INS in 1997, who buy undercover fake IDs at the store. Amador is confronted, and agrees to work with INS officials. At a meeting in 1998 in the Tyson plant, Amador and an undercover agent are asked by a Tyson manager to provide 2,000 Guatemalian workers, and Amador is offered up to $200 per head as a “recruitment fee.”
By 2,000 Amador is doing so well off smuggling Hispanics that he has bought two stores, five houses, and several automobiles.
December, 2001 – March 2003
The INS in collaboration with other federal agencies and local police forces obtains a 36 count indictment against Tyson Foods, two current company executives, and four former managers. The U.S. Justice Department claims that 15 Tyson plants in nine states have been conspiring since 1994 to recruit illegal immigrants, and that this practice was known by senior executives at Tyon corporate headquarters. Undocumented workers were allegedly preferred because of their vulnerable situation. Tyson denies any wrong doing, saying that the managers were rogue employees.
According to rural Migration News, On January 7, 2002, Amador Anchondo-Rascon, pleads guilty to conspiracy to smuggling illegal immigrants into the country.
Assistant AG Michael Chertoff (now head of Homeland Security) says that Justice is serious about enforcing immigration laws. (The number of companies fined for hiring illegal workers went 417 in 1999 to 3 in 2004.)
Three Tyson managers admit guilt and testify. (One commits suicide.) The prosecution fails to implicate senior executives. On March 26, 2003, the jury votes not guilty. According to the New York Times, one of the attorneys for Tyson said that
Tyson officials had voluntarily adopted a government-sponsored computer system for ferreting out fake identification documents. ”Tyson was in the 1 percent of employers who volunteered to go on a computerized identification checking system. Tyson was cooperating with the government every time there was the slightest wrinkle or knowledge of a hiring problem.”
According to Rural Migration News, Tyson, the largest meat processor in the US, with 120,000 employees at 130 locations.
Tyson, like most meat processors, uses the INS’s Basic Pilot program to verify the right to work of newly hired workers- employers submit the A-numbers of newly hired non-US citizens to INS for verification. However, the government alleges that “Tyson utilized workers that were hired and provided to Tyson by temporary service agencies that did not utilize the … Basic Pilot Program, well knowing that most of these workers were unauthorized for employment within the United States.”
Tyson admitted that it used temporary employment agencies to obtain foreign workers, but denied responsibility for the violations committed by the agencies. For example, in 2001, 22 Chinese workers lost their temporary work visas less than nine months after arriving in the US to work at the Glen Allen, Virginia plant. Each worker had paid $10,000 to a Chinese company for the chance to work for as long as two years in jobs that paid $6 to $7 an hour.
Howard Foster, a Chicago attorney, sues Tyson for violation of RICO, alleging a conspiracy to depress wages and deprive Americans of work by knowingly hiring illegal workers. His suit is dismissed by the judge. Foster’s appeal is pending. See the suit here, Trollinger v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 370 F.3d 602 (6th Cir. 2004).