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New Migrant Trails Take Latinos to Remote Towns

Labor: Process brings big-city problems to hamlets. Questions on line between opportunity, exploitation arise.


The journey that took me and seven migrants from the borderlands of South Texas to a chicken factory in the Ozarks was not an isolated adventure.

It's been made by at least 1,200 workers at the Hudson Foods factory in Noel, Mo., and repeated by many thousands more at poultry plants in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. Just about anywhere there's a menial or dangerous job to be done--the Southern Pride catfish plant in Greensboro, Ala., the IBP slaughterhouse in Storm Lake, Iowa, the Opryland Hotel in Nashville--Latino migrants have been sought out to do it cheaply and with little fuss.

"Tons of people are being recruited to these little towns up North, basically to do the dirty work that the locals won't," said Nick Flores, director of the U.S. Department of Labor's wage and hour division in San Antonio. "It's not high pay and there's little protection, but they do it because it's better than nothing."

For decades, Latino migrants have been making similar treks to the farmlands of California and Texas, brought north to perform back-breaking chores at a wage that most Americans find demeaning. The "chicken trail" reflects just how many other jobs now fall into that category. At slaughterhouses and packing plants, on construction crews and maintenance staffs, tasks that once seemed to offer working-class security to a local population have become the migrant farm work of the '90s.

In the process, these new migrant streams have carried Latino laborers to some of the unlikeliest corners of small-town America, remote hamlets in the Midwest and Southeast with few resources to accommodate their new neighbors. Noel (population 1,169) doesn't even have a traffic light or an ATM. Yet almost overnight, it's been forced to grapple with vexing, big-city issues: bilingual education, overcrowded housing, racial tension, illegal immigration.

"This isn't just a temporary phenomenon," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "It's a new process that's planting seeds of immigration in rural areas, many of which haven't experienced immigration in a century or more."

Within their respective fields, both Hudson Foods Inc. and the labor recruiting firm it uses, B. Chapman & Co., are considered upstanding enterprises--certainly more reputable than their fly-by-night competitors. Yet their partnership still raises a complex set of questions about the line between opportunity and exploitation.

If workers on the economic fringes are being matched up with jobs, isn't that, in and of itself, a worthy endeavor? Or do Chapman and Hudson have a greater obligation to the people they send north? What about their responsibility to the community at the end of that road? Who is paying the price and who is reaping the rewards?

As it turns out, Chapman and Hudson have similar questions about each other, as well as about Steve Holland, the owner of the crumbling resort that houses the new hires. When pressed, they all point fingers, Hudson at Chapman, Chapman at Holland, Holland at the migrants themselves.

In the end, even the American consumer is dragged into the fray: To what extent does our appetite--a seemingly insatiable hunger for chicken nuggets and boneless breasts and Buffalo wings--drive the poultry industry's furious pace?


Steven "Bo" Chapman, the 37-year-old point man of B. Chapman & Co., was chewing a Butterfinger when the gringo he'd hired two months earlier walked through the door. He mumbled, offering a nod of recognition.

But when it was explained that he'd sent a reporter up to the Hudson Foods chicken plant, Chapman's face lost its welcome.

"This is my living," he said.

That was almost the end of our conversation, except for two revealing details Chapman shared about his background.

He said he'd grown up in San Diego, where he worked as a carpenter, helping build hundreds of homes along Interstate 5. His construction business, however, was no match for the cheap labor flowing north from Mexico. Eventually, Chapman said, he couldn't compete anymore, underbid time and again by Latino work hands.

The second biographical note: His dad was a U.S. Border Patrol agent. He'd been stationed at Chula Vista and Terminal Island, before retiring from the agency as a deputy regional chief. Bo had a keen sense of the economic pressures that rule the border--laws of supply and demand that, instead of resisting, he chose to facilitate.

"I put people to work," Chapman said.

Then he deferred to his mother, Barbara "Peanut" Chapman, who started their recruiting business a decade ago. She was sitting in the living room of her majestic stone and wood cabin in the heart of Texas' Hill Country, explaining how she traveled to trade fairs and convention halls until she had amassed a hefty list of employers desperate for employees.

"There's probably 1,500 companies in the food industry alone that need our help," she said. "We could work ourselves 24 hours a day if we wanted to."

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