Ground Meat

Native-born and immigrant both get bled at Swift's beef plant

Salcido pulled aside the assistant human resources manager, she says, a man named Oscar Arriaga who still works at the plant. She told him it was obvious that many of the Guatemalans were in the country illegally and that their IDs were false. Arriaga, she says, got annoyed and told her to keep doing the paperwork. "Finally, I said, 'I'm going to the bathroom,'" she says. "'I want nothing to do with this.'"

McHugh, the Swift spokesman, says he has no knowledge of such allegations and points out that the company maintains an anonymous whistleblower line that workers can call to report abuses or crimes. Any manager accused of violations is promptly investigated, he says. "To suggest Swift knowingly hired illegal workers, or even worse, conspired with ID theft rings, is outrageous, untrue and in bad faith," he says.

One lawsuit alleges Swift violated federal racketeering laws by knowingly hiring and harboring illegal immigrants. After Dallas lawyer Domingo Garcia filed the wrongful termination lawsuit in Dallas County and discovered evidence to support the allegation that managers knowingly hired illegal workers, he tipped off Angel Reyes' firm, Heygood, Orr, Reyes & Bartolomei, and they filed a federal RICO lawsuit. Federal racketeering statutes were expanded in 1996 to apply to immigration violations, and in recent years such lawsuits have become a rare but increasingly utilized avenue for punishing companies that hire undocumented workers. A Chicago firm has taken the lead, winning a class certification against poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc. that makes plaintiffs of all legally employed hourly wage earners at 15 plants.

Felipe Navarro, a legal resident from Mexico, recently moved to Cactus from California to work at Swift.
Felipe Navarro, a legal resident from Mexico, recently moved to Cactus from California to work at Swift.
Cactus police Chief Larry Kelsay calls Cactus a "wild town."
Cactus police Chief Larry Kelsay calls Cactus a "wild town."

McHugh calls the Dallas RICO action a "copycat lawsuit," arguing that the company did due diligence in filling out employment paperwork and checking the IDs presented by prospective workers. "The evidence will show the lawsuit has no basis in fact or law," he says.

The two lawsuits against Swift are separate, but the lawyers describe both as painting a picture of a company that, after it was purchased by Hicks' HM Capital Partners, systematically and deliberately purged injured legal resident workers and replaced them with illegal Guatemalans. "When the venture capital cowboys come to town, they know where to find the money," Reyes says of the Dallas investment firm.

"What really upsets me is that ICE arrests all these immigrants working in terrible conditions, and yet the CEOs in their suites are left untouched," Garcia says.

A former worker who is not a plaintiff but says he'd like to join the RICO lawsuit says managers helped two of his friends who were in the country illegally get jobs at the plant. Genaro Cantú, a 37-year-old McAllen-born man who worked at the plant for 14 years, alleges it was common knowledge that Arriaga helped illegal immigrants get jobs. One day in 2003 or 2004, he says, he told Arriaga he had two friends who were looking for work but weren't legal residents. "He said each one would have to pay $1,000 and to just make sure that the Social Security numbers were real," Cantú claims. Arriaga allegedly told him to take the men to an employment manager who, according to a deposition, was later fired for taking kickbacks. Cantú says he went with the men and watched them pay her $1,000 each in cash. They'd bought stolen IDs from someone in Cactus, he says, and both were hired. The Mexican man has since left the plant, and the Guatemalan was fired after the raids, Cantú says.

Asked if he was willing to tell his story on the record, Cantú replied, "I want to testify. I'll tell Arriaga to his face in court." The former worker says Arriaga fired him last July after he complained that he was doing the work of two people, though the manager told him he was being terminated for fighting. (In a deposition, Arriaga denied all of these allegations. He didn't return phone calls from the Dallas Observer requesting comment.)

Numerous other former workers said it was common knowledge that a large number of employees were using stolen IDs. Serrato, the 62-year-old who worked in the hide department for 18 years, says his granddaughter's husband worked at the plant using someone else's Social Security number and discovered that child support was being withdrawn from his checks. Such accounts are similar to others chronicled by The Dallas Morning News last November. There was an Iraq war veteran who was jailed on a DWI-related offense he knew nothing about and a mother who nearly lost food stamps and Medicaid benefits because a Guatemalan immigrant was using her Social Security number to work at Swift.

Several former employees say there were even underage Guatemalans working at the plant. Salazar says she often ran into boys working on the kill floor who looked like they were her kids' age—13 or 14, with new mustaches just coming in. Once she asked one how old he was. Thirteen, he told her. "Why are you working here?" she asked. "We need the work, we need the money," he replied.

Serrato, Salazar and others also said that vans, even buses, full of Guatemalans would sometimes arrive at the plant.

What makes the former workers so angry is not only that they assume they lost their jobs to these immigrants, but that the Guatemalans' illegal status and their fear of complaining or reporting injuries made conditions worse for everybody.

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