Ramblings About Immigration & The Wall

When I was younger, I tried to get deported -and failed.

I cobbled together shorter versions of stories I never seem to finish. Please accept my apologies for the weird combination of words to describe people and processes. I know that “legal vs. illegal,” or “undocumented” or “alien” have specific meanings and ramifications. My heart is openly liberal about this issue, so please forego assumptions if I use any of the words or their synonyms lazily. Even though I will have passed from this place before it happens, one day the Latinos will surpass the other demographics and became the majority in the United States. They will win by sheer numbers. They’ll write the history books and look back on our insistence on blaming the lowest denominator for the issues in society. As is always the case, those that froth for deportation and border walls are going to look quite different in the lens of history.

I spent many years working in the poultry plants in Northwest Arkansas. When I started, the Latino workforce was already rapidly growing, even 30 years ago. The rapid growth of our local poultry industries owes much of its success and growth to the exploding Latino population. Most people nod their heads in polite agreement with this statement; just how true it is depends on whether you worked the productions lines of a poultry plant in Arkansas. NWA’s construction boom certainly owes much of its success to the immigrant population.

For years, though, we played the ‘wink’ game of pretending that a staggering percentage of our workforce wasn’t undocumented to work in the U.S. This, of course, was fine by me. I could plainly see that these Latinos were much more willing to work and certainly more willing to submit themselves to excruciatingly difficult work to improve their lives. I learned their language and acquired a love for some of their music and most of their food. (Except for that horrible Banda/Norteño style that I couldn’t acquire a taste for!) I never understood the tendency to fear other languages and cultures, whereas being surrounded by such diversity seem to amplify the opportunities of life.

Given the nature of the majority of the work, the most important attribute for anyone was the ability and willingness to submit to relentless work, regardless of country of origin or skin color. It’s an obvious statement to mention that prejudice ran rampant in the poultry plants; many non-Latinos hated their Latino counterparts, and not just because of the language barrier. Most of the towns in NWA were quiet and isolated until the late 70s, when industry and modern highways opened up as arteries to explosive growth. As with most isolated agricultural towns, our towns tended to exhibit the expected prejudices found in such places. Some have urban legends and real anecdotes to demonstrate their previous insistence on small-mindedness; I won’t list them here. Prejudice tends to blossom anywhere there is a need to create excuses for problems or where education fails to keep pace with the preached dominance of the majority group. There were plenty of Latinos who hated Americans, too – and many who hated me, especially when they realized that language wasn’t a barrier for me. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to see that many of them earned that resentment, after needing to come here unwillingly out of economic necessity and forge a new life, many of them working at a level I would never have survived. Even today, decades later, many U.S. citizens still lump all Latinos into one group to disparage them and their contributions.

Aside from the low-key compliance paperwork visits that Immigration would make to the facility, we experienced rare raids, one in which federal agents magically appeared, followed by long buses to transport suspect undocumented workers to a holding facility prior to being deported. For anyone who has never witnessed such a spectacle of fear, I can’t describe it without resorting to hyperbole. As word that Immigration was entering hit the production lines, these lines that NEVER stopped suddenly swung to full stop as knives and work tools were dropped or thrown everywhere, as human beings fled in terror – some of whom were here legally and some who were citizens. Work smocks were left billowing across bird shackles, trampled on the greasy, wet production floors with bird parts, and across the large back fences at the rear of the facility property. People hid in blast freezers at temperatures below zero, inside holding bins, and across railroad cars adjacent to the facility. One man ran from the plant almost all the way to Rogers, for fear his children would be deported, too, although they were citizens.

During one raid, I was stupid, marching across the holding truck docks, watching as workers were zip-tied with their hands behind their backs or pulled from poorly-decided hiding spots. I was asked in Spanish if I spoke English and would only reply, “Abogado.” (Lawyer.) As with any job, some of the agents were exemplary professionals – while others were better suited to bite the heads off chickens. I was detained for a short duration until the agent yanked up my smock and extracted my wallet by way of half-ripping off the pocket of my pants. My crazy name threw him into confusion, which amused me.

“What country are you from?” the agent asked. I sat back down on the dirty, oily floor with the other detainees and ignored him. I hoped he was going to tie me and mark me for the bus to Forth Smith for processing. Instead, he threw my wallet at me and stomped away.

I walked over to a small cluster of agents and told them it was a bad idea to keep people zip-tied inside refrigerated trucks backed up to the dock. They told me to mind my own business and that it wouldn’t be for more than 30 minutes. Since I was playing the role of clever person, I replied, “Is that what I should tell the TV station when they show up to do interviews?” They escorted me out the back shipping door by the office. I walked around and came immediately back inside from another dock access door.

As I passed those being detained, I asked anyone I could talk to if they needed me to write a phone number down with a name and call it for them. If the agents told me I couldn’t do that, I ignored them. I knew that the agents were not supposed to interfere in any way with people talking to those being detained, provided distance was maintained. If an agent didn’t speak Spanish, I would offer to translate for them.

I walked up to another agent and held out my hands in front of me. “I’m ready to go,” I told him in Spanish. I was ready to get on the bus and be sent to Fort Smith. I knew it would be a great story: “American Citizen Deported” the headline would have read. As the agent started to turn me and put on the zip-tie, another agent who heard me mouth off in English told him I was yanking his chain. I got a general warning about interfering with the duties of a federal agent. I went to check on the upstairs supply storage mezzanine, and as I walked around, I casually noted who was hiding ineffectively. As I could, I whispered that I could see them.

During the next raid, I left my wallet in my locker to better play the role of someone concealing his identity. I still couldn’t manage to be held for questioning.

Mostly, I was in a haze of surprise. It was an angry, disillusioned moment. While some of those detained for processing and/or deportation were without legal permission to be in the country, the reality is that none of them would have been there without the economic necessity driving both them and employers all across the United States to find ways to hire them. In my mind, the employers were the bigger problem and I knew no matter how big any unlikely fine they might pay, nothing could eclipse the sum of the human suffering I was involved in. When you factor in that the particular employer I was working for then was the biggest private company in the entire world, the problem became a little more ridiculous.

As the millennium came to an end, the government offered a voluntary program called E-Verify, but few employers wanted to actively participate. Meaningful fines or actions against employers were as rare as prancing unicorns.

I always resented the attack on individuals, ‘legal residents’ or not. I’m quite sure had the Immigrationsagents arrested everyone in the management hierarchy, changes would have been much more immediate and lasting. It’s easier to detain, harass, and deport those doing the menial jobs for the benefit of national and international corporations. The lesson that needed to be taught, if any were needed, should have been one of accountability on the part of those knowingly taking advantage of a massive workforce.
During another raid, I was stunned when a man I knew very well took off running as the agents swarmed in. His paperwork was impeccable and had he not run, he would have been passed over. But he ran and agents caught him inside the huge industrial cook ovens on the west side of the plant. By the time I caught up to Francisco, he was zip-tied and in tears. I too became upset, knowing that the careful accumulated life he had made in Springdale was lost forever. He had walked across the border with nothing, having spent everything to get here. He walked everywhere until he could get a bicycle. He worked with the ferocity and dedication of two men. And he was a warm, compassionate person who often gave his money to people for rent, food, and clothing. He worked all overtime offered and literally didn’t know how to say “no” to anyone asking for help. Despite being told to never return to the United States, he decided to return less than a year later. He came back to work through a temporary agency, with a new name and new set of documents. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the system we had. When he returned, he didn’t ‘take’ anyone’s job – we had more positions than we could keep filled. This same story was told by the millions across the United States.

One of the great stories of these Immigration raids on the poultry plant is that one of the workers brought his bags to work on the day of the raid. He was ready to go back to Mexico and decided that the trip might as well be sponsored by the United States government. I didn’t witness it but it’s one of those stories that is still told. He proudly boarded the detainee bus to Ft. Smith, because even he knew he could come back anytime he wanted and get another job at the same plant whenever he wanted.

The days following those raids were filled with stories of children without parents, fear at being caught or fear of losing one’s family members. With time, however, people returned, eager to earn money for a living, even with the shadow of an unlikely deportation looming over them. The need to work usually trumped the fear of getting caught or deported. So, the cycle would continue, from Washington D.C. to the plants and industries all over the country.

In my job, I later interviewed hundreds of applicants, and looked at what seemed like an infinite number of IDs. We were supposed to just note if the IDs appeared to be legitimate, an extremely low standard if you think about it. I quickly learned that no one would second guess me if I said it looked legitimate. Applicants could have handed me a picture of Donald Duck and I would have almost laughed to myself and accepted it. I got more than one lecture about not looking too closely at documents for compliance – the minimum was the standard and I lowered mine relentlessly. I found it hard to believe that in a country with so much technology that we couldn’t devise a simple way to avoid employing undocumented workers if we really wanted to. From there, it was even easier to realize that no one wanted such a system, as it would cripple entire industries.

When I legally changed my name, I was offered thousands of dollars for my old birth certificate. It was hard to turn down that offer. I turned it down out of fear of being held accountable, which is idiotic looking back on it. All I had to do was leave it on a table and walk away. I almost gave it to the person at no charge, just to be amused to know that even as I killed off my former self, a Latino would rise from the ashes using my old name. The forged document industry still exists, available to anyone with sufficient interest in discovering it. As long as employers aren’t held accountable, no amount of enforcement is going to change anything.

So, here we are, with an administration hell-bent on deporting everyone who is here illegally. We are going to be forced to spend billions of dollars erecting a wall which will be totally ineffective in its goal, and those advocating its construction know this already. The symbolism of doing something, anything, regardless of effectiveness, is paramount to them. A wall will not address the underlying issues of immigration, nor will it improve our society. But it seems fitting that the same people who hate social programs to help the lesser would divert billions of dollars from helping people in need toward erecting a wall without necessity, against a problem that is much more easily fixed.

PS At least 1/3 of all those without credentials came to our country on airplanes, which tend to ignore walls. And 1 in 30 of every person in the United States right now is here without proper credentials.

For anyone unfamiliar with the United States’ history of dealing with Latino immigration, it’s as shadowy and unsavory as you imagine. In the 1930s, we blamed Latinos for the depression, so we deported a few million in the 30s and 40s. During WWII, we suddenly needed a massive workforce, so we looked the other way – until the early 50s when we actually launched an initiative the government titled “Operation Wetback.” Reagan, among others, wanted to grant amnesty to all who were already here, all of which has once again been reduced to blaming immigrants for all manner of societal nonsense.

The reality is that we are going to have to come to terms with the real consequences of our borders without succumbing to emotional or political pressure. We need most of those who came here for employment to continue to live here, no matter how we define their immigration status. We could devise a system of employment verification that could almost eliminate the presence of those not legally able to work here. We could do the same for housing, public assistance, education, and all other areas affected by immigration. But – many of us don’t want such a system, just as the employers relying on immigration can’t survive without the presence of a massive workforce willing to fill positions that would otherwise go understaffed.

The wall is one of the biggest stupidities ever devised, just like the raids I experienced at my employer years ago. It was exactly like the old adage of someone putting their hand in a bucket of water and then removing it. Without a unifying resolve to act, which we don’t have, and a plan that address the economics of immigration as well as the logistics, all efforts will fail. But we’ll spend dollars on things instead of people, symbols instead of human needs and suffering.

In years to come, when the wall is no more, we will look back at the sheer ignorance of Trump and all those who believe a wall is the solution for any problem in our country. Even as we reach for our wallets to pay for their stupidity, we’ll shake our heads in wonder, waiting until the next wave of stupidity will infect our country.

As someone who spent years immersed in the patchwork of our system, I can see a path that could address most of the real issues with immigration. Most of it will never occur, though.

So we’ll continue to point the finger instead of fixing ‘us’ first.

And the ‘wink’ continues…

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