Ground Meat

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

Approaching Cactus on Highway 287, Swift billboards advertise jobs at the plant, which now start at more than $11 per hour. "The quality of our meat is surpassed only by the quality of our people," one proclaims, bright red and white under a dishwater-blue sky. Turning off the highway and driving through Cactus' trailer-lined streets, the impact of the raids is evident in apartment-for-rent signs, closed restaurants and a boarded-up Guatemalan store. With all of the bodegas and abarrotes and signs in Spanish, it could be a town anywhere in Mexico or Central America.

I visit the mayor's grocery store—the only one in town—to see if he'll help me find some of the Guatemalans who I'm told remain in Cactus. Luis Aguilar is himself an immigrant who came to Texas from Mexico more than 30 years ago. But the mayor isn't interested in talking to reporters. One of his employees says he was so angry with a description of himself in The Dallas Morning News that he wanted to sue, and when the worker calls the mayor and tells him there's a Dallas reporter who wants to talk to him, Aguilar hangs up. So I ask the police chief what he thinks.

"Last reporter we had here tried to talk to people in a bar, got a bunch of beer bottles thrown at her," he says, his face somber. Cactus is a wild town, he says, where assaults and public drunkenness are constant. I wind up in the Laundromat. Having lived in Guatemala, I can spot the Central Americans the moment they walk in. I talk with a half-dozen throughout the day, though several women don't speak Spanish, just their native Quiché, which makes conversation nearly impossible. All are tight-lipped. Some are terrified.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
A billboard advertises jobs at the plant.
Megan Feldman
A billboard advertises jobs at the plant.

A dark-skinned woman, barely 5 feet tall with braided hair wound into a bun, tells me she and her husband are from Joyabaj, Quiché, and that he still works at the plant. They have an 18-month-old. "I'm scared," she says. "Immigration hasn't come back, but they might. If I got sent back and my baby was left here, I'd die." Like the others, she tells in accented Spanish of how they paid a coyote to lead them through the desert for days on end, eventually winding up here after her husband heard there was work at the plant in Cactus. She's not sure how old she is. She describes Guatemala, one of Latin America's poorest countries, as home, but a place to which she can't imagine returning. "There's no work in Guatemala—just in the corn and coffee fields, and it's horrible. You scratch up your arms and get swarmed by the flies, and even then you don't make any money."

The ones who will answer say they got their IDs—which belonged to other people—from vendors in Dumas or Cactus before getting hired at the plant. News stories on court documents unsealed in Amarillo and Salt Lake City report a large-scale stolen document racket that stretches throughout the West, from El Paso to Utah. A small Guatemalan riding a girl's rusted pink Schwinn tells me he bought someone else's documents before getting a job at Swift. He wasn't working when ICE arrived at the plant, and when he heard what had happened he hid inside his apartment for four days. Like hundreds of other unauthorized employees, though, he was fired when he returned to work.

A 30-ish Guatemalan driving with his wife in a van pulls over to talk to a friend. He interrupts their animated conversation in Quiché to tell me that some people are still staying inside their homes, hiding, months after the raids. He left his job at the plant several weeks before ICE came, he tells me. "I'm evangelical, and I believe in dreams. One day I dreamed immigration came, three white buses, and they took people away," he says in Spanish. "I couldn't get arrested—I have two kids here—I thank God that I still have my family." He's looking for work, he says, because he knows things haven't changed in Guatemala. "We have faith things will change soon, that we'll find work," he says.

The pink evening sky is fading into darkness over Cactus, and he looks at the clock on the dashboard. "We'd better get going," he says. "You have to be careful around here. It gets dark, and bad things happen."

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