January 18, 2002

Commentary

INS crackdown on employers overdue

By Ruben Navarrette
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

It is almost laughable to think anyone ever believed that Mexican immigrants came to the United States for welfare. When it became clear that the newcomers actually possessed a work ethic that shamed that of many Americans, the rap against them was that they took away jobs.

Now, the truth comes out. The real trouble with immigrants from Mexico - especially the illegal kind - is that they are just too darn easy to exploit. They perform dirty, disgusting, and demeaning jobs that most Americans won't do for wages that most Americans wouldn't accept under conditions that most Americans wouldn't tolerate.

Of course, there are traditionalists who cling to the argument that illegal immigrants - regardless of origin - are, by definition, illegal and that immigration laws should be respected.

Ah, yes. Respect for the law. As federal prosecutors see it, that old bird won't fly at Springdale, Ark.,-based Tyson Foods Inc., the largest meat producer in the United States. The $20-billion company recently was indicted along with six current or former executives for allegedly conspiring to run an aggressive employee-recruitment service that resembled a smuggling operation.

According to the indictment, the trouble began when a Tyson executive, concerned about an underperforming plant in Shelbyville, Tenn., suggested recruiting better employees.

"That plant needs more Mexicans," then-Tyson Foods executive Gerald Lankford allegedly told subordinates in October 1994.

Frankly, as a Mexican (albeit of the hyphenated, American variety), I don't know whether to be flattered or offended.

Sure, it is nice to be wanted. But if even some of the allegations in the indictment are true, the offense is that what Mr. Lankford and other Tyson managers likely wanted were employees who would maximize profits by putting out more for less _ low-maintenance workers who take whatever pay they are given without complaining or causing trouble. This Mexican dream team shows up to work early, stays late, never demands sick time, and is just happy to have a job plucking chickens, under fear of deportation.

The 36-count indictment - the result of a 21/2-year investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that used wiretaps, undercover agents, and paid informants - accuses Tyson and the six managers of hiring intermediaries to transport hundreds of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border and place them in 15 Tyson plants in nine states, including Texas.

The case is evidence of what the INS calls a shift in its strategy. Once preoccupied with workplace raids intended to nab illegal immigrants, the agency is beginning to deal with the problem at the source by cracking down on those who hire and exploit them. That is a change for the better, and the crackdowns should continue however the Tyson affair turns out.

The man said to have been the primary middleman for Tyson - Amador Anchondo-Rascon of Shelbyville - also is alleged to have provided employees with fake work permits and Social Security cards to get by federal employment laws. The indictment alleges that Mr. Anchondo-Rascon was paid with Tyson corporate checks that listed the payments as being for - here is the best part - "recruitment expenses."

If true, how bold that was. How brazen. How careless.

Tyson denies there was a corporate conspiracy and says the managers were rogues acting on their own. The managers may say otherwise at a hearing later this month.

The U.S. government claims that Tyson fosters a corporate culture that, beyond tolerating the hiring of illegal immigrants, actually went so far as to encourage it - and conceal it.

If proved guilty, Tyson faces more than $100 million in fines. Prosecutors derived the figure from what they say were years of illegal profits made by exploiting immigrant workers.

I know this story. Though they were in the country legally, and only one was an immigrant, all four of my grandparents attacked the workday as if their lives depended on it. And, of course, it did. Tireless and dedicated, they set a standard that their U.S.-born grandchildren never will live up to. And some of their employers took advantage of that dedication in a way that my cousins and I - as Americans - never would put up with.

If you really think about it, what Tyson is accused of goes beyond cutting corners to enhance the bottom line. If the charges are true, the company poisoned the American Dream for hundreds of desperate souls whose takeaway impression of this country was that we are a people who take advantage of those who are poor, different, and weak. A $100 million fine wouldn't begin to cover it.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News. This article was published January 4, 2002.

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