Sort & Cull

Meat Packers Nervously Monitor Immigrant Ban

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst

We're finishing one of those weeks fraught with national indecision and political rancor where only the lawyers make money. I guess that's how the pool table always tilts in a country that labors under the rule of law. Those who carry keys to the courthouse on their belt always seem to find plenty of work.

When the smoke cleared late Thursday, a federal appeals panel from the U.S. Ninth Circuit unanimously rejected President Trump's bid to reinstate his ban on travel into the United States from seven largely Muslim nations. While this represents a significant mark in the sands of resolution, nearly all analysts and commentators agree the extremely contentious matter will now find its way to the Supreme Court for final judgment.

But for now, a teeming peanut gallery filled with Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, strict constructionists, members of the ACLU, proponents of the wall, defenders of sanctuary cities, innocent immigrant families, and perhaps a few plotting terrorists is understandably raising a cacophony of cheers, boos, and general confusion.

Within this welter of reaction also cries a few low but urgent voices from the meat processing industry. Since their anxiety is more economic than constitutional, more self-serving than patriotic, anonymity within the sprawling protest probably seems the better part of valor. Yet make no mistake about it. Major packers view the ultimate adjudication of the travel ban as having significant dollar-and-cent implications.

Ever since Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift perfected the art of disassembly in the second half of the 19th century, the employment of foreign-born workers have been vital to the success of the packing industry. Indeed, most histories of major ethnic groups that have settled America contain some kind of packing house chapter.

The historical drill reads something like this: new, unskilled immigrants first gravitate to readily available jobs on the kill floor; but once education and cultural know-how afford greater upward mobility, the former newbies secure different employment with relatively higher standards of pay and safety.

As they pick up their last paycheck, immigration officers are stamping a new generation of passports (if not chasing the next carcass splinter through the Texas brush). And so it goes.

Actually, refugees have been a fixture within the chain speed workforce since 2006, when immigration officials under President Bush raided plants in several states, leading to the arrest of about 1,300 undocumented workers. Soon after this major disruption and threats of more of the same, processors realized that the business model of hiring undocumented people was more trouble than it was worth. As much as possible, they refocused recruitment efforts on the refugee population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, immigrants hold 35 percent of the 441,000 animal slaughtering and processing jobs in this country.

Unfortunately, official data don't specify what share of those immigrants are refugees. I've heard shots in the dark ranging from 5 to 15 percent.

While the heated fireworks of the past several weeks surrounding Trump's four-month ban on all new arrivals, not much has been said about the president's other plan to slash refugee admissions from 110,000 to 50,000 in the current fiscal year. But you can bet it remains glued on the radar screen of every HR department in packer land.

Packers have more than a few dimes in this game. No wonder Barry Carpenter, CEO of the North American Meat Institute, a trade group an hard-working lobby for packers, issued the following statement in late January:

"As the administration pursues changes to the nation's refugee policies, we hope it will give careful consideration to the ramifications policy changes like these can have on our businesses and on foreign-born workers."


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2/14/2017 | 7:41 AM CST
And your story doesn't stop with packers. Fewer workers lead to slower chain speeds which leads to less kill capacity and lower prices for animals. And eventually lower grain prices. Hopefully there is an adult in Washington.
2/13/2017 | 5:55 AM CST
Interesting numbers. How about some stats on how many go directly to the welfare line instead of the working class. There is not much of an incentive to seek employment in places, such as sanctuary cities.