Victims in the Heartland

Shelbyville, Tenn., is an archetypal American working-class community of 16,000 people. Located 53 miles south of Nashville, it has one high school, one movie theater, six pawnbrokers and no parking meters. Its greatest claim to fame is the Tennessee Walking Horse, a smooth-gaited breed developed and tirelessly promoted locally. But far more visible are the 18-wheel tractor-trailers -- each loaded with roughly 5,000 chickens in open metal crates -- that rumble through town day and night. They're headed for the cavernous Tyson Foods plant on Shelbyville's west side, next to the Duck River. Tyson Foods Inc., based in Springdale, Ark., is the world's largest processor of chicken, beef and pork, with sales last year of $23.4 billion. With 1,100 employees at its Shelbyville plant, Tyson is also that city's largest employer.

In the mid-1990s, two Shelbyville police officers, Bill Logue and Don Barber, were puzzled by a series of curious incidents. An uncanny number of Hispanic motorists that they stopped for routine traffic violations were presenting obviously bogus driver's licenses or other fake IDs. The officers also were seeing a rash of freshly crumpled cars abandoned on Shelbyville streets. "There were a lot of car crashes with the driver leaving the scene, and there was no insurance on the vehicles," Logue told me when I visited Shelbyville recently.

Logue and Barber's inquiry into the false-ID cases pointed to Amador Anchondo-Rascon, a local Mexican American grocer and former Tyson employee, as a provider of illegal workers to Tyson. To widen the investigation, Logue and Barber sought help from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

When INS undercover agents posing as transporters of illegal aliens approached Anchondo-Rascon, he immediately enlisted them to work with him in supplying undocumented workers to Tyson. Anchondo-Rascon, who later pleaded guilty to various immigration-related offenses and served two years in prison, worked closely with the "transporters" for two-and-a-half years. Operation Everest, as the INS called the sting, resulted in the discovery of 154 illegal aliens being employed at five of Tyson's poultry plants in Oklahoma, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The deliveries were at the core of a 36-count federal indictment that prosecutors obtained against Tyson in December 2001. The company was charged in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga with having, among other things, engaged in an elaborate seven-year scheme to recruit hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala for its poultry plants in at least 12 states. Six of Tyson's mid-level executives or plant managers were also indicted. But in the end, even though Tyson was benefiting from illegal workers laboring in its plants, the executives avoided conviction.

It was the most ambitious criminal immigration case ever against an employer. Prosecutors demanded $100 million as a forfeiture penalty that they said represented the company's ill-gotten gains. The transcript for the six-and-a-half-week trial ran 5,464 pages. On March 26, the jury rendered its verdict: not guilty on all counts.

The sting had caught several Tyson managers or their assistants on audiotape and videotape plotting to recruit and hire illegal aliens for several plants, including the one at Shelbyville. Seven Tyson employees, whom the company eventually fired, had quietly pleaded guilty to immigration-related offenses.

During the late 1990s, Tyson employed 67,000 workers at 55 poultry plants. Court testimony established that a number of those workers were illegal, some hired directly and some through temp agencies. That was scarcely blockbuster news; many industries pay low wages for hard, dirty work and are staffed by illegal aliens.

It was more noteworthy that some managers at a company of Tyson's size and standing actively recruited large numbers of illegal immigrants. The case also underscored the frailties of an immigration-control system in which top executives can satisfy the law even if their company's ranks are rife with illegal workers.

Most important, the Tyson case offered a window on the real victims of a hypocritical system: illegal workers, whose precarious status makes them peculiarly subject to exploitation; legal workers, whose wages are depressed and whose unions are undermined by the influx of illegal immigrants into the workplace; and low-level managers, who are vulnerable to prosecution when they play by the system's de facto rules.

The first trickle of Hispanic workers to Tyson's Shelbyville plant dates from the late 1980s. Just a decade later, according to court testimony, 600 to 700 Hispanics made up nearly 75 percent of the plant's workers.

One of the early arrivals was Anchondo-Rascon, who is 44 and a legal U.S. resident by virtue of having married an American citizen from whom he is now divorced. After crossing the Mexican border illegally in 1979, he wound up in Florida before moving to Tennessee in 1986. He worked first as a laborer at a plant nursery; three years later, he became a "skin puller" on the night shift at Tyson's Shelbyville plant.

By the mid-1990s, witnesses testified, Anchondo-Rascon was operating what amounted to his own underground railroad, recruiting and transporting illegal immigrants from Mexico to Shelbyville. He would take paid leaves of absence for up to two weeks at a time and return with 12 to 15 workers -- whom the plant would hire even though many of them carried patently bogus documents attesting to their legal status.

Anchondo-Rascon may not have been the only employee recruiting illegal aliens. During the late 1990s, buses occasionally transported as many as 200 Hispanics from Texas to a plant in Sedalia, Mo., according to Kelly Englert, a former nurse at the facility. Some of the IDs that the Hispanics presented seemed of questionable validity to Englert, she testified. Testifying on Tyson's behalf, Ahrazue Wilt, the plant's manager, conceded that buses brought as many as 35 workers at a time from Texas to Sedalia, but she said the Texas Workforce Commission had screened the workers first, and she denied that they were illegal.

A Tyson plant in Union City, Tenn., sought workers in Mexico through a classified ad in El Diario, a newspaper published in Juarez across the border from El Paso. The Spanish-language ad, which ran on Feb. 13, 1999, promised $15,000 to $18,000 a year for work on a poultry production line. The ad was placed by InStaff Personnel, an employment agency based in Dallas that recruited about 500 workers in Texas and Mexico for the Union City plant, according to Keith Phillips, a former InStaff managing partner. "We would not have recruited any Mexican nationals, because we were checking to be certain that [applicants] were legal to work in the United States," Phillips said.

Just how many of the plant's workers were illegal is hard to pin down. One indication was the mass firings that occurred when the company learned it was the subject of the INS undercover operation. Almost 300 Hispanic workers were sacked in one fell swoop in 2000, according to Randy Hadley, an official in the Birmingham, Ala., regional office of the Retail, Wholesale Department Store Union, whose Local 990 represents Tyson workers at Shelbyville.

A law-enforcement official involved in the Tyson prosecution termed Hadley's estimate "conservative," as it does not take into account the illegal workers who worked in the Shelbyville plant but left before the mass terminations.

Tyson's policy stipulates that its employees must abide by all immigration laws. The company formalized the policy in 1999, proclaiming "zero tolerance" for immigration-law violations. It also volunteered to take part in an INS program that verifies the authenticity of Social Security cards and matches them to other IDs presented by job applicants.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act, which Congress passed in 1986, makes it a crime for an employer to knowingly hire an illegal alien. The law protects employers from prosecution as long as their employees can show matching Social Security cards, driver's licenses or other IDs. Widely considered unenforceable, the law has had the perverse effect of fueling the black market in counterfeit documents.

Tyson was indicted not for employing illegal aliens but for such acts as allegedly conspiring to transport them within the United States and providing them with counterfeit documents. The company's defense was clear-cut: Managers who broke the law "decided by themselves" to do so "without the knowledge or encouragement of senior management," defense attorney Thomas C. Green proclaimed at trial.

While the verdict exculpated the company of illegal-alien recruiting and related crimes, it is hard to imagine that Tyson's top executives were not aware that their work force abounded with illegal immigrants. John Tyson and other executives who visited Shelbyville in the mid- and late 1990s were fixated on the question of illegal immigration, according to Jimmy Rowland, a former personnel manager at the plant. It was a period when Hispanic immigrants were flocking to the nation's meatpacking and poultry-processing plants amid persistent reports that many of the newcomers were illegal. Indeed, Tyson officials collected a trove of articles at corporate headquarters in Arkansas on the subject of immigration, indicating that they had an "uncommon interest in immigration matters," prosecutor John P. MacCoon stated.

Had Tyson intended to ensure that its workers were legal, the company could have policed its plants without violating the laws that protect employees' civil liberties. For example, its employee files at Shelbyville contained 90 copies of a single California ID tendered as proof of legal status from 90 workers, MacCoon said. Any Tyson auditor who checked the files might have asked if all 90 employees could have been legal.

Local 990's President, Calvin Ewing, 49, is a soft-spoken man with a close-cropped gray beard. A data processor, he has worked at Tyson for 21 years -- a stint notable for its longevity. Company statistics put the turnover at Shelbyville and at all Tyson's poultry plants at 100 percent a year.

Although automation has exempted human hands from some of the worst tasks -- machines can kill chickens, scald and eviscerate them, and lop off limbs -- much of the work is still difficult and dangerous, thus accounting for the high turnover rate. Some workers grapple with live, scratching, defecating chickens, loading them on hooks at the start of the production line. Others pare flesh and bone with scissors and knives. "You're standing in water, and you're standing in these high-speed lines, and maybe you're cutting all day without stopping," Ewing said.

The instability of the work force has long complicated Local 990's attempts to recruit members, a problem only aggravated by the influx of illegal immigrants into the Shelbyville plant during the 1990s. "To me it's kind of like union busting," Ewing said.

Like Shelbyville, 16 of Tyson's 53 poultry-processing plants are union shops. At trial, MacCoon accused Tyson of having employed "cheap illegal labor to keep cost down" at both its union and nonunion shops, resulting in a $100 million boon for Tyson.

Local 990 succeeded in negotiating wage increases averaging only about 2 percent per year during the 1990s -- barely enough to cover inflation. In 1999, Tyson's starting hourly wage stood at $7.16 for 38 hours, or $207.66 per week in take-home pay. In the fall of 2000, Tyson abruptly raised its starting wage by $1 an hour at Shelbyville and four other plants, where it replaced numerous temps with permanent workers.

A union's negotiating leverage depends on the size of its membership, particularly in a right-to-work state such as Tennessee, where union membership is optional even in a union shop. Local 990's clout waned during the 1990s, when membership plummeted from about 400 to fewer than 100, as the plant's work force became predominantly Hispanic. Indeed, union efforts to organize Hispanics at Tyson's poultry plants have met with little success. Illegal aliens, vulnerable to arrest and hobbled by language and cultural barriers, "think the union here is like the policemen and, if they do something wrong, we'll get rid of them," Ewing explained. Hispanics now make up only about 10 percent of the work force, and no more than a half-dozen belong to the union. Since the mass sacking of Hispanics three years ago, Local 990's membership has recovered somewhat to about 300.

Jimmy Rowland, 6-foot-2 and hazel-eyed, was, by all accounts, an unassuming, personable, church-going family man. "He didn't smoke, drink, cuss -- nothing," his widow, Carolyn, said.

Jimmy lived 12 miles outside Shelbyville with Carolyn and their two sons in a white, one-story farmhouse in the hamlet of Flat Creek. Jimmy's first job after high school was working as a nursing-home orderly. In 1990 he signed on as a nurse at the Tyson plant in Shelbyville and rose through the ranks to become personnel manager.

That was the position he held in December 2001, when he was indicted along with his company for alleged immigration-law violations. Rowland told prosecutors that he regarded himself an "innocent victim" of Tyson. Although he did not live long enough to testify at the Tyson trial, he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. A letter he wrote to his lawyer while preparing for the trial referred to conversations among top Tyson executives -- including former CEO Leland Tollett and current CEO John Tyson -- that Rowland said he overhead during their visits to the Shelbyville plant between 1995 and 1998.

Rowland was careful to write that he did not hear any of Tyson's top executives say they had done anything illegal. He did write, however, that "a great deal of the conversations dealt with the government's realization that there were not enough people to fill the low-skilled jobs in America." Tyson's top executives, according to Rowland, interpreted the nation's lax enforcement of immigration laws as signaling the "government's desire to ignore and encourage" the employment of illegal workers.

Being named a criminal defendant threw Rowland into a tailspin, and it didn't help when Tyson fired him. He couldn't sleep. He lost 30 pounds. "He said, 'We're all just going to be scapegoats,'" Carolyn recalled. "I think he worried about his reputation being smudged ... he had never had anything blacken his name."

In April 2002, Jimmy Rowland drove his dark blue Chevy pickup to a wooded pasture near his house, pressed the barrel of his 30.06 rifle against his chest and pulled the trigger. He was 36 years old.