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After a liquid nitrogen leak last month at a poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia, killed six workers and injured a dozen others, representatives from the Foundation Food Group are grilling the survivors about their nationality and immigration status before allowing them to access medical care and worker’s compensation. As investigators probe the cause of the tragedy, advocates say the sudden focus on their immigration status has left many workers too intimidated to speak out. 

In response, advocates have organized legal clinics and taken to social media to post messages in Spanish informing poultry plant workers of their rights. 

“When we hear of these forms of abuse and intimidation, we feel it’s important to let workers know their rights. These questions are completely immaterial to whether or not they need medical care,” said Paul Glaze, a spokesperson for Georgia Familias Unidas, a mutual aid organization, in a statement to Prism. Doug Rohan, of the Atlanta-based Rohan Law and a workers’ compensation expert, added that since 1995 the court of appeals for the state of Georgia has prohibited insurance companies from factoring in immigration status when approving or denying benefits like workers’ compensation. 

The Foundation Food Group didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the allegations that company representatives asked poultry plant workers about their nationality and immigration status in order for them to access workers’ compensation. 

With the largely immigrant workforce at the poultry plant terrified into silence, the situation unfolding in Gainesville highlights a dangerous intersection between immigration enforcement and workers’ rights, where the threat of detention or deportation prevents workers from speaking out about workplace conditions that put their lives at risk.

While COVID-19 has drawn increased attention to the dangerous conditions workers can face in the meatpacking industry, many of the risks long predate the pandemic. The laws that would normally protect workers’ health and safety have proven to be fickle against the brute force of the meatpacking industry, and so have the ones protecting other violations of workers’ rights like wage theft and retaliation. The storied impunity of industry employers has been catalogued extensively for nearly 15 years in Human Rights Watch’s Blood, Sweat, and Fear report, looking at the abusive business practices and violations of workers’ rights. Officially, workers who speak out are supposed to be protected.

“All workers, regardless of documentation status, are protected by law against retaliation for complaining about workplace conditions or cooperating in an OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] inspection,” said Michael Felsen, an Access to Justice Fellow with Justice at Work and a former Department of Labor regional solicitor. But the reality workers face on the ground paints a starkly different picture. 

A climate of fear

The city of Gainesville, known as the “Poultry Capital of the World,” is located in northeast Georgia, a short 50-mile drive from Atlanta, and has a population of more than 40,000, with Latinxs representing about 40% of its residents, and the largest concentration of undocumented immigrants in the country. This city of immigrants has been gripped by a fear of deportation so severe that a whole taxi industry has sprung up for workers to use taxis rather than risk driving, according to The New York Times. 

In this context, setting workers up for deportation can be an especially potent means of retaliation. Workers say managers in the poultry industry are aware that a large segment of the workforce in Gainesville is undocumented, and use that knowledge to coerce and silence workers desperate for any employment they can get. 

“They know,” said Juan Sandoval in an interview with Prism. Sandoval is a 13-year veteran of the poultry processing industry, having worked at three different plants in Gainesville (but never at the Foundation plant). “There are very few companies here that really follow regulations and do not accept a social security that is not yours, or a fake green card, and it is not legal but the poultry plants do, the poultry plants do take it,” he said. Sandoval knew all the Latinx workers who tragically died at the Foundation Food Group, even though he didn’t work there himself.

He said the poultry plant system is a “very, very bad place for our Latino community, but unfortunately, there’s no choice [but] to work there.”

Once immigrant workers are hired, they have to contend with employers who wield their status as a tool of suppression, Sandoval explained. He’s experienced it firsthand. Once, Sandoval learned that a particular manager had sexually harassed women in the plant. When he confronted the manager, the man questioned his immigration status and legal documents and reduced his work hours in an apparent bid to silence him. 

But it isn’t just individual supervisors. The entire apparatus of law enforcement and federal immigration agencies coalesce to create a climate of fear, especially in light of ICE raids at meatpacking facilities stretching from Ohio’s Fresh Mark to Koch Foods in Mississippi, in which 680 undocumented immigrants were arrested in the single-largest raid ever carried out in the U.S. In August 2019, one week after the Mississippi raid, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that hundreds of Gainesville poultry workers left their jobs fearing an impending raid. In 2006, federal immigration authorities raided a chicken plant and nearby homes in Stillmore, Georgia, arresting more than 120 people. 

“Raids by ICE have long had devastating consequences but the past four years were disastrous,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb co-executive director of National COSH. “Knowing that the prior administration was fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment, ICE was used by employers to silence workers. Even worse, ICE itself helped silence workers in cases like the Hard Rock Hotel, when a worker witness to the deadly collapse was deported.”

The harmful impact of raids goes far beyond the directly impacted families. ICE raids at workplaces, Felsen added, “are exceptionally harmful not only to the workers directly impacted, and their families, but to all workers too.”

“Because the message delivered is: ‘If you speak out, if you complain about your conditions, you’re in danger. So don’t speak out,’” Felsen continued. “And so, the government needs to send a different message, loudly and clearly, and back it with policy and action: We want you to speak up, and we will protect you.”

Taking back power

In response to this climate of fear, advocates in Georgia and across the country are fighting back with solidarity, taking care of each through mutual aid, legal clinics, and sometimes just providing an empathetic ear to listen. They are demanding an end to the very conditions that make these exploitative conditions possible in the first place. In addition to the bare basics of food, shelter, and good health, advocates point to a new vocabulary of radical demands that have emerged and solidified into a set of concrete counterproposals defining possibilities for solidarity and militancy: end the deportation and detention system and stop the criminalization of immigrants. 

To that end, on Feb. 1 at a virtual news conference, a coalition of over 50 immigrant rights, civic groups, and labor unions announced they had sent a letter to state and federal officials and the Foundation Food Group’s legal counsel with three demands:

  1. Foundation Food must not intimidate, harass, or retaliate against workers or their families. 

  2. The U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must conduct a full and comprehensive investigation. 

  3. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement must be prohibited from carrying out any enforcement activity during this investigation against any Foundation Food workers, their families, or the immigrant communities in the region. 

Apart from the raids, the letter pointed to other instances where immigrants spoke out against injustice and later faced reprisals from immigration enforcement, from the deportation of witnesses to the abuse women suffered at Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center to the case of Rosa, a survivor and cooperating witness in the mass shooting at Walmart in El Paso, Texas in 2019, who was deported to Mexico last month after a traffic stop by the El Paso police.

“These Foundation Food workers, their families, and other immigrant communities in the region should not be targeted or subject to a similar fate,” the letter continues. 

The worry is particularly acute in Gainesville, where the city participates in the Secure Communities and 287(8) programs that permit ICE and local law enforcement to work together in reporting undocumented immigrants. Advocates for the poultry families, including Georgia Familias Unidas and their allies, are demanding an end to the cooperation between local law enforcement and the immigration system, which ensnares undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings for minor infractions like a broken taillight. 

As advocates seek to protect one set of vulnerable workers in one particular incident from deportation, the need to dismantle the whole deportation and detention apparatus has grown more urgent, and a once unthinkable demand for more mainstream advocates has emerged as the most viable option on the table: amnesty now! 

“We believe this is a viable option if the Senate fails to act on comprehensive immigration reform,” Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told USA Today

Maria Del Rosario Palacios, the founder of Georgia Familias Unidas, similarly agrees. 

“A call for amnesty is as necessary as the essential labor we, and many others, provide to this country, ” Palacios said.

Luis Feliz Leon

Luis Feliz Leon is an organizer, journalist, and independent scholar in social movement history making good trouble in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @Lfelizleon.