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A modern tale of meatpacking and immigrants

Grand Island, Neb., has long been a revolving door of immigrants, from Vietnamese and Bosnians to Latinos and Sudanese. But with Somali Muslims came a whole new set of conflicts.

January 28, 2010|By Kate Linthicum

Reporting from Grand Island, Neb. — Hawa Farah was living in Minneapolis three years ago making $8 an hour at a bakery when her fiance, Hussein Hussein, got a call about good jobs that paid better.

So the couple, like many Somali immigrants who follow work around the country, headed 600 miles southwest to Nebraska, state slogan: "The Good Life."

They settled in Grand Island, a blue-collar railroad town on the flat Midwestern prairie. They got married and brightened their worn apartment with plastic flowers and colorful rugs. Hussein, 33, began working the early shift on the "kill" side of the local meatpacking plant. Farah, 24, took a job on the "fabrication" side, trimming fat from brisket.

The promise of better pay was true enough.

But the good life would prove elusive. The young couple didn't know the plant's history and what it would mean for them.

A magnet for immigrants

It was still dark when dozens of federal agents, guns drawn, swept into the gray, windowless buildings at Swift & Co. just before Christmas 2006.

They were Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents taking part in a six-state sting, and they had warrants to search for undocumented workers.

Like most of the nation's slaughterhouses, the Grand Island plant had always been a revolving door for immigrants.

Meatpacking is hard, dangerous work; the Department of Labor says it results in more injuries than any other trade. But it doesn't require workers to speak English, and in Grand Island it pays a starting wage of $12.25 an hour.

Ads placed in immigrant newspapers across the country had drawn war refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and from Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.

Most made some money and moved on.

But many Latino immigrants, who started arriving in large numbers in the 1980s, stayed. They launched Spanish-language radio programs, founded churches, set up taco trucks. And unlike earlier immigrants who were legal refugees recognized by the U.S. government, many Latinos had crossed the border illegally.

When immigration agents came to town in 2006, Latinos comprised up to 11% of Grand Island's 45,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the day of the raid, agents detained more than 200 of the plant's 2,500 workers. Another 200 Latinos from the evening shift, apparently fearful of deportation, promptly quit.

In town the raid triggered an eruption of resentment.

When Latinos marched in protest afterward, some townspeople lined the streets with a counter-demonstration, holding signs that read, "Go back to Mexico, wetbacks." The local newspaper was filled with venomous letters to the editor decrying Latino immigration.

"A lot of people don't like the Latinos, they just don't," said Jeff Fulton, a Grand Island native who has worked at the plant for 25 years. Latinos faced more discrimination than previous immigrants because they had put down roots, he said. One only had to drive down 4th Street, past La Solomera Guatemalan import store and El Tazumal Mexican restaurant, to see their influence.

"There has been more bigotry," Fulton said, "because there has just been more and more and more of them."

The emotions unleashed by the raid would soon find a new target -- Sudanese and Somalis attracted by the promise of work at the meatpacking plant.

The new immigrants, who had been granted refugee status because of strife in their homelands, posed new challenges to the status quo in Grand Island.

They were black, and some were Muslim.

A new kind of different

During each shift, at sundown, Farah asks her supervisor if she can put down her knives and go to the bathroom. Sometimes, if there are enough other trimmers to cover for her, the boss says yes.

Farah stands at the sink in the company locker room, away from the drone of the factory floor. She washes her hands, her face, her arms and her feet, turns northeast to face Mecca and begins to pray.

When the Somalis began arriving in 2007, supervisors learned that some of the more devout workers prayed five times a day, and that the sundown prayer fell before the plant's regularly scheduled 15-minute break. For the most part, they looked the other way.

That changed in 2008, during Ramadan, when virtually all the Muslim workers began leaving the assembly line en masse to pray. Even Muslims who are not particularly religious often make an effort to pray during the holy month.

Co-workers complained that they had to pick up the slack. Management told the Somalis they couldn't pray because the plant, one of the largest in the country, couldn't afford to stop the machines. Five hundred Muslim workers, infuriated, walked off the job.

Most came back after Swift & Co. agreed to accommodate them by changing break times.

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