Refugees, Meatpacking, and Rural Communities

Photo credit: The University of Kansas

One week after taking office, President Trump signed the executive order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which suspended our nation’s refugee program for four months and would cut the number of refugees to be admitted this year by more than half. Among the many who voiced concerns over this edict were Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, and Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS, USA, both of whom fear it will lead to labor shortages in meat and poultry processing plants. [The first executive order has been blocked by the federal courts, and the Trump administration has drafted a new order, designed to overcome current legal objections.]

Meatpacking is one of North America’s few remaining manufacturing industries where a high school diploma, previous work experience, and the ability to speak English are not necessary for employment. With their high turnover, minimal benefits, dangerous working conditions, and low wages, meat and poultry plants create relatively few jobs for local people. Instead, packers target immigrants and refugees for hourly jobs on their slaughter and processing floors. Work on meat and poultry lines does offer entry-level employment and a chance for a new life in America to many immigrants and refugees, something the industry has done for well over a century. As a result, Mexicans and Guatemalans stand beside workers from Somalia and Myanmar, the Marshall Islands and Palau, on meat and poultry lines from Kansas and Nebraska to Iowa and Missouri to Delaware and Maryland. These workers do much more than make our meat; they and their families have also transformed and revitalized towns across rural America.

For 30 years, I have studied the consequences of industrial meat and poultry production and processing for host communities, processing workers, and producers. My research has taken me to Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and two provinces in Canada. My publications include Any Way You Cut It: Meat Processing and Small-Town America and Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America, now in its second edition. I will leave critiques of the Trump administration’s refugee and immigration policy to others. Here I wish to offer a brief overview of the role of immigrants and refugees in the meat and poultry industry and what that has meant for host communities.

By the 1980s, meat processing companies were abandoning old-line plants in cities, with their union workforces, and moving to rural communities, often in right-to-work states. This relocation was part of the restructuring of the US economy. The oligopolies of multinational corporations that control food processing redeployed capital to the cheapest production sites and cut their labor costs by creating low-wage, deskilled jobs, filled largely by minorities, immigrants, refugees, and women.

Dramatic changeovers in the profile of food processing workers altered the demographic and cultural characteristics of the industry’s host communities, beginning in the beef- and pork-packing towns of the Midwest in the 1980s and spreading through the Southeast in the 1990s to towns with poultry-processing plants and other low-wage industries. In less than a decade, many small predominantly Anglo midwestern and southern towns were transformed into multicultural communities.

One of the first communities to undergo rapid growth and increased ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity was Garden City, Kansas, a town I have studied for 30 years. After IBP opened what was then the world’s largest beef plant a few miles out of town in 1980 and another beef plant opened in 1983, Garden City became a modern-day boomtown and the fastest growing community in the state. Most newcomers were Mexican immigrants and Vietnamese refugees. Today Garden City is a majority-minority community: one in five Garden Citians is foreign born, and two of three are people of color. Hispanics include not only third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans but also newly arrived Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Cubans. Although many of the Vietnamese refugees who came in the 1980s have left, others from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Myanmar have taken their place. Many of these newcomers are Muslims, who add to Garden City’s religious diversity, as do Old Colony Low-German-speaking Mennonites who migrated from Mexico in the 1990s.

For Garden City, as for other towns that host meat- and poultry-processing plants, rural industrialization and rapid growth have created an array of problems common to so-called boomtowns: population mobility, severe housing shortages, soaring school enrollments, increased crime and social ills, inadequate medical services, strains on infrastructure and social services, dramatic increases in cultural and linguistic diversity.

The jobs meatpacking has brought to Garden City and other packinghouse towns have helped them weather economic downturns over the last several decades, but they come with serious social and economic costs. Their experiences offer a cautionary tale for any community that might be looking to multinational food-processing firms to provide community development. Garden Citians have learned to compensate for the consequences of an economy dependent on meat processing. They have also learned to embrace the steady stream of new immigrants and refugees, their strong work ethic, and the rich heritages they bring with them. Garden City has a well-deserved reputation for welcoming and accepting all who come to live and work there. Emblematic of its openness and cosmopolitan qualities is the city’s motto: “the world grows here.” Garden City offers a window through which to view the economic and demographic changes that are transforming rural America. It can also serve as an exemplar for how to deal with the challenges—cultural, linguistic, religious—that accompany these changes. If only we will let it.

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