OMAHA, Neb. — When a team of immigration agents swooped down on the slaughterhouse at 7 a.m., handcuffs and search warrant in tow, word spread fast on the killing floor. So did the panic.
Some workers dashed outside to an adjacent gravel lot, hunkering down among skittish cattle thrashing about in pens. Some climbed into dark recesses of the plant's rafters, forcing flashlight-toting agents to ferret them out of hiding.
It was the beginning of the end.
A journey that had begun months or for some years ago, furtively, desperately, hundreds of miles away in dusty villages in Mexico, across the border, across the vast expanse of rippling wheat fields to this corner of America's heartland, was about to give way to one more journey.
Destination: back to the border. Then, across the Rio Grande to Mexico.
This one-way ticket would come courtesy of the U.S. government.
The roundup of more than 80 workers this summer day at the slaughterhouse and at a second plant, both owned by Greater Omaha Packing Co., was just one more trickle in the widening stream of illegal immigrants migrating to--or being smuggled though--the Midwest.
At times, the flow of undocumented workers has overwhelmed federal agents, strained county jails and exhausted authorities struggling to keep pace with a problem--a perpetual pipeline of illegal immigrants--once considered largely the domain of states like Arizona and California.
For Jerry Heinauer, who has led dozens of raids as head agent of the Omaha district of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, there's a message behind the crackdown:
"It can't be that once you're past the border you're home free," he says. "You can't have that kind of mentality."
His district--which includes Iowa and Nebraska--has deported a record number of illegal immigrants this fiscal year: about 2,400, a sixfold increase since 1994. The Greater Omaha raid marked the 20th local raid agents have conducted since January in what has become a routine:
Raid a work site, round up undocumented workers, fly them to the border, watch them leave the country. Then hope they don't come back.
In December, agents raided the city's garbage hauler. In January, it was a liver-processing plant. In February, a meatpacker. In April, a foundry. In May, a metallic industry. And on and on.
This July day, every cubbyhole, every meat carcass in the chilly slaughterhouse was checked for stragglers. Every worker was questioned. Every suspected undocumented worker was identified, then escorted out, some still wearing floppy rubber boots and bloodstained shirts. Two were just 16 years old.
As they all climbed aboard a chartered bus, the first leg of an 877-mile flight to El Paso, some smiled, others waved jauntily to TV crews. The lumbering vehicle belched a smoky farewell, seeming to defy the name etched on its silver grille: "Good Life Coaches."
For most illegal immigrants, the Midwest is a magnet for one simple reason: the promise of a good life.
With Nebraska and Iowa boasting two of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, this is a job mecca. Restaurants, construction companies, factories and foundries all are hungry for anyone with a strong back, steady hands and a willingness to work. English is not required.
"In Los Angeles, they apply at 30 places and nothing," says the Rev. Damien Zuerlein of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Omaha. "Here, they apply at two places; right away there's a job."
Unlike states like California, where grape- or strawberry-picking is seasonal, there's steady work here, paying $7, $8, even $10 an hour, a solid day's wages in Mexico. Tack on benefits and modest living costs and it becomes even more inviting--so much so that word quickly spreads south of the border.
Nowhere is the 'help wanted' sign out more than in meatpacking.
Iowa and Nebraska have about 220 meatpacking plants, and it doesn't take much math to figure out that in an industry where experts estimate turnover as high as 100% a year--strenuous, blood-and-guts work and high injury rates are contributing factors--job openings are frequent.
Often, local residents shun these jobs, leaving them to those near the bottom rung of the labor ladder--legal immigrants, including Mexicans, Laotians, Vietnamese and, most recently, Bosnians.
But despite denials by some companies, Heinauer estimates that up to 25% of the meatpacking work force in the two states is illegal.
It's part of a shifting trend, says John Martin, special projects director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit group in Washington.
"It used to be the Mexicans and Central Americans coming across illegally were primarily getting jobs in agriculture," he says. "There's been a transformation over the last 10 years that increasingly the illegals are going into large plants that employ unskilled workers."
Sometimes they blend in with legal immigrants; other times they replace them, knowing they have no options.