With 1,200 workers, Empire is the largest kosher poultry plant in the country. During the raid, the cops sealed the plant to control all entries and exits. As one worker stated, "It was terrifying. They herded us into the cafeteria like animals. We'd never been through anything like that." She spoke in defense of the undocumented workers, saying, "A person has to work."
There were 45 cops from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), 12 Pennsylvania state police, the Juniata County Sheriff along with two deputies, and two agents of the Social Security Administration involved in the raid. Those rounded up were taken to the York County prison.
Wendell Young III, president of the UFCW local, said in a phone interview the raid was "horrendous. The whole way the raid was handled, with SWAT teams, was atrocious. So far 15 workers have been sent back to Mexico. We have our lawyers handling everything possible and we have demanded workers be paid for the time they were out of work. What happened at Empire," he said, "is just a little pebble on the beach of what is happening all over this country. It has to be exposed."
The raid has been described in local papers as one of the biggest ever in Pennsylvania, and Young said he had not heard of any of this size before.
Workers arrested came from countries in Africa, as well as Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Mexico. The INS said they will immediately deport those arrested who are from Mexico while all others would be issued notices to appear before an immigration judge and released on their own recognizance. By the next day 10 Mexican workers had been deported, three workers were still held on other allegations, and 122 workers were released. Those set free have hearing dates in June, July, and August in Philadelphia. But they are unable to work at old jobs while their immigration status is up in the air. Many have left the area to find work elsewhere.
Nelson Renderos, a 30-year-old Salvadoran worker at the plant, told the Lewistown Sentinel, "I've got to look for another job now. I'm illegal here, but we all need work." Renderos has been at the plant for about four years and makes $8.50 to $9.00 an hour. His family remains behind in El Salvador and he said he has tried to send $100 to $200 a month to his mother.
Another worker was not picked up by the INS because he had to stay with a sick child that morning and missed work. He said he is nervous about going back to the plant, but his wife has work papers and is still working. He said he doesn't know what he and his family will do.
Paula, a worker from Chile, described the raid. "It was a quarter to 10 in the morning," she said. "Night shift goes home at 10:00. They called all the workers into the cafeteria. The police told Americans to go to one corner, and Chileans, Mexicans, and Chinese to other corners. They said to us 'are you legal or illegal?' Then they handcuffed those they decided to arrest and took them away." She reported that many workers, including pregnant women and women with children, were photographed, identified, and released. Those arrested were put on buses. "People were very scared. Lots of people were crying," she said.
Paula is just one of a growing number of Chileans who have recently come to work at Empire due to the poor state of the economy in her native country. "Workers from countries like Peru and Bolivia have always come to Chile for work," one worker explained. "Now we have to come here."
Paula came to the United States a month and a half ago. She was swept up in the raid and now must appear in court. As an example of the impact of the raid on families, she said she supports her four-year-old daughter and her mother on her wages at Empire. "I can't go back to Chile. I don't have the money," she said. "I have no idea how I'm going to take care of my family." Starting wages are $7 an hour until a worker gets into the union.
The biggest problem workers face on the job, Paula said, is the line speed. After a month on a knife job her hands have become numb and she has difficulty opening them in the morning. Paula's normal workweek is 10 hours per day four days a week. But she has worked up to 70 hours in a week. Other workers reported that overtime is voluntary in the plant but many workers put in long hours.
Another Chilean couple missed the raid because they were not at work that day. They explained that they can make in four 10-hour days what they made in a month in Chile. They were planning to go back to work but were very nervous about the threat of deportation. They did not think the company had collaborated with the INS in the raid. As they explained, the company has a hard time keeping workers and this was a particularly busy time for them.
Workers reported that local churches and the company are organizing support for workers affected by the raid. Some immigration lawyers are available free of charge.
Wilma Yocum, a retired union garment worker who worked at Empire in the early 1980s, said there were "a good number of Spanish-speaking workers from Central America" when she was in the plant. "They were very hard workers. I'm very upset that people who worked that hard could be treated that way," she said.
Chris Remple is a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees Local 622 in Jefferson, Pennsylvania.
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