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The Business of Cruelty

Mississippi’s ICE raids come on the heels of a surge in white nationalist violence

Last week, in the wake of the largest workplace immigration raid in a decade, mass media was inundated once again with the spectacle of weeping brown children, clinging to a chain link fence, crying for their parents. Some were even subjected to interviews; in the days that followed, more than a hundred stayed home from school out of fear, distress, or both. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers had detained 680 workers across seven poultry processing facilities owned by five different companies around Jackson, Mississippi. None of the employers who actually hired the undocumented workers have been arrested or charged. In all likelihood, they never will be.

“We are a nation of laws, and we will remain so by continuing to enforce our laws and ensuring that justice is done,” U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst said after the raid. As usual, President Trump could be counted on to make the implicit explicit. “I want people to know that if they come into the United States illegally . . . they’re going to be brought out. And this serves as a very good deterrent,” he said. “When people see what they saw yesterday, and like they will see for a long time, they know that they’re not staying here.”

Whereas President Obama’s deportation machinery was more discreet (and more efficient), eschewing the kinds of mass raids that invite media attention, Trump has embraced this tactic precisely because it makes the brutality of deportation so public and inescapable. According to BuzzFeed News, ICE made almost ten times as many workplace arrests in fiscal year 2018 as in 2017. The paradox of this strategy is that such tactics are less effective at achieving the ostensible goal of removing every undocumented immigrant altogether—unless, of course, the Trump administration does not want the immigrant community actually deported, but in a constant, precarious state of deportability.

This contradiction threatens to be resolved in a deeply terrifying way: enforcement officers, striving to achieve an impossible goal set by a capricious racist, take increasingly radical steps, knowing that Trump will never fail to reward the projection of strength and the indiscriminate spread of misery among black and brown workers, citizen and non-citizen alike. The raid—or “worksite enforcement operation,” in agency parlance—came barely a week after three deadly mass shootings. Two of the alleged killers appear to have been open white nationalists. “The timing was unfortunate,” Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan admitted this weekend.

The so-called invasion decried by violent white nationalists and mainstream conservative commentators alike has been enormously profitable for poultry businesses in the South.

Ten days before Mississippi raids, nineteen-year-old Santino Legan opened fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, killing three people—six-year-old Stephen Romero, thirteen-year-old Keyla Salazar, and twenty-five-year-old Trevor Irby—and wounding at least thirteen others before turning his gun on himself amid a firefight with police. While the FBI opened a domestic terrorism investigation after discovering that Legan had compiled a “target list” of political organizations, religious institutions, and federal buildings, authorities have been circumspect about his motivations, alluding to a “fractured ideology.”

Not long before the shooting, however, Legan posted a photograph of Smokey Bear, the ursine fire safety icon, to his Instagram. “Read ‘Might Is Right’ by Ragnar Redbeard,” Legan wrote in the caption. While less famous than right-wing texts like Camp of the Saints, the 1896 book and its pseudonymous author have nevertheless achieved a position of influence in white supremacist circles for Might is Right’s nihilistic and fascistic celebration of social Darwinism. A review published by the anti-Semitic and white nationalist Occidental Observer concluded that the book contains a lesson for white people in the United States and Europe, who are “generally under threat” from immigration: “The lesson would be to gain power, economic as well as territorial, establish enclaves wherever convenient but eventually . . . re-conquer the whole of one’s country. A few Christians may balk at this, but encourage them to be hypocrites.”

Six days after the Gilroy, California, shooting, twenty-one-year-old Patrick Crusius drove across Texas to a Walmart in El Paso, where he killed twenty-two people, including fifteen-year-old Javier Amir Rodriguez and Jordan and Andre Anchondo (twenty-three and twenty-four years old, respectively), who died shielding their two-month-old baby from bullets. Twenty-six people were injured. According to police in El Paso, Crusius has confessed to the shooting; he said that he was targeting “Mexicans.” Less than a half-hour before the first 911 call came in, an unsigned manifesto titled “The Inconvenient Truth” was posted on the website 8chan, likely by Crusius. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” the manifesto claims, citing the same “great replacement” theory that has motivated white nationalist violence from Norway to New Zealand. “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.” The manifesto also echoed Legan, who had written on Instagram: “Why overcrowd towns and pave more open space to make room for hordes of mestizos and Silicon Valley white twats?” Law enforcement may be loath to name this “fractured” ideology, but we need not be so circumspect: it is eco-fascism, and it is here to stay.

As it happens, the so-called invasion decried by violent white nationalists and mainstream conservative commentators alike has been enormously profitable for poultry businesses in the South. According to the New York Times, the Latinx population increased by 33 percent across the region between 2009 and 2018; in Morton, one of the towns targeted by last week’s ICE raids, it has grown from 13 percent of the population in 2000 to about a quarter today. Mississippi’s poultry businesses, which accounted for almost $3 billion of the state’s $7.7 billion agriculture industry in 2018, have been aggressively recruiting immigrant workers to their facilities since the 1990s. Working at one of these processing plants is both gruesome and grueling, and workers have little recourse or protection, whether American citizens or otherwise. In 2015, meat, poultry, and fish cutters experienced carpal tunnel syndrome nearly twenty times more often than workers in other industries, ProPublica has reported; more than 750 processing workers have had body parts amputated since 2010. Obstacles to workers organizing and building power abound in the right-to-work South, allowing poultry companies like Koch Foods to thrive; undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable, thanks in part to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2002 that determined businesses have no obligation to rehire or pay back wages to undocumented workers whose labor rights are violated.

Labor leaders like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, condemned the ICE raids, but could offer little more than platitudes. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) represents workers at two of the plants targeted in the raids, but they, too, have little capacity to respond beyond triaging the aftermath. “Our top priority right now is to provide whatever assistance and counsel we can to any of our impacted members and their families,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Workers across this country are too scared to stand up for their rights and to report wage theft, dangerous work conditions, and other workplace issues. We must act now to end this dangerous climate of fear.”

Both of the UFCW-organized plants are owned by Koch Foods, the largest of the businesses in last week’s raid. The company—which bears no relation to the other, more famous Kochs—has come to ICE’s attention before. In August 2007, more than 160 workers were detained at its Fairfield, Ohio, plant; as Reuters reported, the company was being investigated at the time for inducing undocumented migrants to come work at its facilities. Records show that workers were subject to harassment and discrimination that verged on the sadistic. In a deposition taken as part of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation into racial discrimination at Koch Foods, one Latinx worker recalled witnessing a supervisor sexually assault his wife. “My wife and I talked and I understood that it was not her fault,” he said. “I felt that my hands were tied because if she lodged a complaint or if I did and I went to the office, they wouldn’t listen to me. And I was afraid that I could be fired. So my wife and I kept silent, but emotionally, I felt like the most miserable man in the world.”

Records show that workers were subject to harassment and discrimination that verged on the sadistic.

In a second deposition, another worker spoke about how difficult it had been to approach federal authorities with information about conditions at the processing plant even as her supervisor was threatening to use her immigration status against her: “I was in such a difficult situation. It’s very difficult to explain. It’s difficult for you to understand it, but I just felt that I was there between a rock and a hard place. I felt like I was at a cliff, if I took a step forward, I would fall. If I took a step back, I would fall, and nothing else mattered to me. I just was looking for someone to help me, someone to listen to me . . . I was desperate.”

Koch Foods paid $3.75 million to settle the lawsuit last year. A few months later, Mark Kaminsky, the company’s COO, was appointed chairman of the National Chicken Council, a poultry lobbying group. The industry organization has been pushing for more robust tools to verify workers’ immigration status, as well as the Agricultural Guestworker Act, which, according to the Cato Institute, “would greatly expand the liberty of Americans to contract with foreign workers through a new temporary work visa program.” As ever, the libertarians’ concern with “liberty” is limited to that of bosses: guest worker programs, especially in agriculture, bind labor—in this case, heavily racialized labor—to the will of management, expanding not freedom but tyranny.

Following the raids in Mississippi, the council implored President Trump in an open letter not to blame employers for hiring undocumented workers. “As a businessman yourself you understand the difficulty in securing a legal workforce and the disruptions to commerce that arise when the tools provided are inadequate,” the letter states. “We look forward to working with you immediately on this issue.” In the meantime, according to the Clarion-Ledger, Koch Foods hosted a job fair yesterday. Business as usual.