You’ve probably seen the news reports about the ICE raids in Mississippi this week. Almost 700 people were arrested at food processing plants in the state because, according to officials, they did not have the proper documentation to live and work in America.
Chicken plants are big business in Mississippi and throughout the south. If you eat chicken, you’ve likely eaten chicken raised and processed in Mississippi. Most people don’t know what it takes to process the chicken they order at restaurants and buy at the grocery store. It’s a hard and dangerous job. Workers spend most of the day on their feet, handling deadly sharp knives and operating dangerous equipment to make sure the chicken is properly broken down, deboned, and packaged. Their feet and hands swell. Sometimes there are serious injuries. Employees work for hours without a break to meet demanding quotas. The plants are cold and crowded and they stink. It pays better than minimum wage, but not much. The jobs are hard to fill. Turnover is extremely high.
To meet demand, owners and plant managers regularly recruit foreign workers to fill these jobs. Many American workers just aren’t able to hack it. Or they complain too much. Americans have the luxury of complaining. We can demand better conditions and insist on being treated fairly. That’s why plant managers often prefer to fill the chicken lines with undocumented workers. They’re also partial to hiring very poor and uneducated workers or workers with a criminal history. Chicken plants are filled with people who don’t have better options. Anyone who can get a better job will do so.
But we Americans want our chicken. We want our chicken nachos at happy hour. We want our chicken dinners on Sundays. We want chicken nuggets for the children and chicken sandwiches at our barbecues. We want fast food chicken and white tablecloth chicken and everything in between. We want it cheap and we want it now.
Here’s what we need to understand: if we eliminate immigrants from the chicken plants, we’ll all need to eat less chicken and we’ll need to pay a lot more for the chicken we eat. Because if we expect an all-American workforce in the chicken plants, we’re going to have to raise wages, offer better conditions, and slow down the production. Frankly, we probably should do all those things anyway. No one ought to work in substandard conditions just so we can all gorge ourselves on chicken wings while watching football. But the fact is, immigrants have been processing our chicken—and the rest of our food supply—for generations now. We’ve gotten spoiled, fat, and lazy off their labor.
And how do we thank them? By rounding them up and treating them like criminals. By tearing them away from their families and traumatizing their children. By insisting they return to the dangerous or poverty stricken areas they’ve worked so hard to escape. These plant workers aren’t criminals. Nor are the workers who pick and process our vegetables. Nor are the workers who cook and clean in the kitchens of our restaurants.
Without immigrants, documented and undocumented alike, our food supply would grind to a halt. Everything we eat would become drastically more expensive. Americans who can’t bring themselves to show an iota of compassion for hard-working men and women trying to build a better life for their families, might perhaps be moved by the threat of food shortages and higher prices. Maybe if our families struggle to put food on the table, we’ll have less energy to spew hate toward other families.
Or maybe not. Maybe we are too far gone to make reasonable decisions about immigration and immigrants. I’m not rallying for open borders, but I do believe that when entire American industries are built on the backs of cheap immigrant labor, those laborers deserve a chance to earn a permanent place in our country. And if we’re going to criminalize the chicken plant workers of the world, let’s start by arresting the plant owners and managers who knowingly stock the line with workers who can’t complain. Don’t hit them with some meaningless fine. Instead, lock ’em up. When they get out of prison, they likely won’t have many job options. But they’ll probably be able to snag a spot on the chicken plant line.
Frankly, if you are one of the people who believes these raids were justified, you should go get a job on the chicken line. You should encourage your children to apply for chicken plant jobs as soon as they are old enough to work. You should understand what some people are willing to endure to make sure their kids have even half a shot at a life that your kids were born into. Being lucky enough to be born in this country ought to make us more generous and compassionate. Instead, it seems to make us more greedy and punitive. It has made us cowardly. It has turned us into chickens.
If this is the way we’re treating people now, I hope we all suffer for it. I hope chicken prices double or triple. I hope tomatoes rot on the vine. I hope lettuce wilts in the field. And I hope Americans, particularly the ones cheering this latest action and shouting for a wall, feel some real hunger in the belly. Because if this is how we treat hard-working human beings, we’ve earned our place in hell and we might as well start getting acclimated.