The Slaughterhouse Rules: Why American Capitalism Loves Illegal Immigration

Inside a meatpacking plant in Nebraska. These chambers of slaughter often rely on the illegal immigrants that Americans love to loathe.

Inside a meatpacking plant in Nebraska. These chambers of slaughter often rely on the illegal immigrants that Americans love to loathe.

In Chapter 4 of The Jungle — Upton Sinclair’s searing 1906 exposé of the American meatpacking industry — Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus arrives at the steaming blood chambers of Chicago’s slaughterhouses and follows his boss to the “killing beds.” He’s given a large broom to “follow down the line the man who drew out the smoking entrails from the carcass of the steer” and sweep the innards into a trap “so that no one might slip into it.” As the screams of animals whose hides were being peeled from their still-living bodies echoes off of the gut-splattered walls, Rudkus wades through pools of coagulating blood and tries to avoid losing a limb to the same gnashing blades that turned cattle into steak. This is a job primarily reserved for immigrants, and Rudkus is glad to have it: at least it promises a future — it promises the American Dream.

But those who have read The Jungle know that things went south fast for Rudkus: besides enduring work conditions that reduced both humans and animals into fleshy pulps in service to the industrial agricultural machine, he also earns a pittance wage; falls into debt; loses his slum house; becomes prey to con-men; sees his wife raped by her employer, and gets thrown in jail. The Jungle ends with Rudkus a broken man who seeks hope from the local Socialist Party.

Sinclair’s description of the meatpacking industry’s horrors gripped the public, and his graphic depiction of immigrant labor furthered a truism in American society: immigrants do the dirtiest jobs; they offer plentiful, cheap, laboring bodies that businesses are all too happy to grind into working-class hamburger. This was as true in 1906 as it is 2014. Business’ exploitation of illegal immigrants is America’s domestic Race to the Bottom. Indeed, before Americans of all political stripes look to criticize the government’s immigration policies, they should first cast a critical eye on the free-market demigods in their midst. Millions of undocumented workers are in the U.S. to fill the gaping maws of bottom-line obsessed American businesses — especially the meatpacking industry — that fattens up politicians with super-sized lobbying dollars to stave off snooping government regulators.

Following his party’s epic trouncing in the 2014 midterm elections, President Barack Obama’s plan to bypass Congress and use executive action to enact immigration reform has elicited predictably doom-laden howls from Republicans, who have threatened everything from legal action, to impeachment, to another government shutdown. The Republicans’ gleaming-ivory base supports their congressional henchmen out of a fear that immigration reform will unleash an unstoppable tidal wave of foreign-tongued brown hordes who’ll steal American jobs and clog the welfare system. For America’s reactionary Caucasians, immigration reform portends a racial Armageddon, since 46 percent of immigrants in 2012 were of Hispanic origin.

In his televised speech, however, the President emphasized the need to recognize people who work in the sweaty, low-wage boiler room that drives the U.S. economic engine. “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” the President asked rhetorically. This is no small point: according to the U.S Department of Agriculture, nearly half of all U.S. farm laborers are undocumented. Of the total population of immigrants in the U.S., some 11.5 million are here illegally, and they’re here because they find work in an American business climate that will shamelessly deplete all of Mexico’s labor supply and flout the now-outdated notion that corporations should respect the laws of actual nation-states.

The fact that U.S. businesses hire lots of illegal immigrants shouldn’t surprise an American public that supposedly genuflects before the altar of free-market capitalism. Nonetheless, a large portion of Americans still views illegal immigrants with disdain, blaming them for siphoning jobs away from the native-born and ushering in the multiculturalist monster that may, among other unspeakable horrors, turn the U.S. into a multilingual country just like the rest of the world. These fears lead to hair-brained calls for border fencesmass deportations, and other like schemes born of nativist paranoia. But criticisms are rarely launched at America’s über free-market culture and its corporate evangelists who invite undocumented immigrants into the shadow workforce.

Inside the Chicago slaughterhouses that provided the setting for Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906).

Inside the Chicago slaughterhouses that provided the setting for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).

We live in a globalized world largely built on the neoliberal dream (or nightmare) of open trade borders, free markets, and deregulation. Domestically, the triumph of neoliberalism has manifested in the now thirty-plus year conservative reign that has wrought the decimation of unions, the decline of American manufacturing, the deregulation of financial markets, and a bizarre obsession with cutting taxes to the bone for businesses and the wealthy. Part of the anti-tax circle-jerk includes tax-dodging, wherein American corporations — and Republican presidential candidates — use every available loophole to squirm out of the U.S. tax system and squirrel away trillions in profits overseas.

The free-market fever has also bolstered the now-standard practice of outsourcing domestic jobs to developing countries with seemingly inexhaustible supplies of cheap labor. Collectively, these practices result in a grand Race to the Bottom, in which employers seek ever lower labor, environmental, and tax standards to the point where every last drop of working and middle-class blood is drained to satiate the corporate world’s vampiric appetite for profits. The trend has become so bad that even individual U.S. states are engaged in a bruising, Race to the Bottom cage-match among themselves. From tax-cutting, to deregulation, to outsourcing, the ideological trend is clear: governments have little to no right to interfere with the private sector. But strangely, this belief doesn’t extend to the issue of illegal immigration.

Indeed, some 86 percent of Republicans hold negative views of undocumented immigrants. Yet it seems blatantly hypocritical for conservatives to deny businesses unfettered access to the dirt-cheap labor they crave. If American conservatism has done nothing else, it has championed the idea of the corporation as a stateless entity that should be free from an oppressive government that supposedly imposes restrictions on heaven-sent market rights. Thus, conservatives have no problem defending activities like corporate tax-dodging: if you believe that businesses shouldn’t have to deal with government meddling, then there’s nothing wrong with letting them run faster to win the world-wide Race to the Bottom. After all, government is the problem…

If conservatives can tar the state as the sworn enemy of the profit motive, then why should they worry about a trivial thing like citizenship when there are bottom lines to protect? Heck, the idea of citizenship seems hopelessly antiquated in today’s von Mises-on-steroids capitalist culture. But those who mouth this free-market Festivus hypocritically insist that illegal immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy despite the fact that hiring undocumented workers is functionally no different from overseas tax-dodging. In both cases, businesses are just doing what’s (supposedly) necessary to swell their already bloated gains. The Race to the Bottom need not play out only on foreign shores; it’s happening in America’s backyard, and it’s a predictable outcome of a stateless economic order in which powerful employers have devalued labor to a literally criminal degree.

This point brings us back full-circle to the meat-packing industry and the undocumented workers that it hires. As Upton Sinclair observed, immigrants have long heeded the slaughterhouses’ sinewy siren call. The meatpacking industry employed some 486,000 documented immigrant workers in 2010, but the number is likely higher when undocumented souls are cast into the cauldron. Moreover, the industry has shifted from urban to rural areas, where locals complain about the growing brown menace while following lock-step behind Republican free-market platitudes. That’s because, as sociologist Amy Fitzgerald writes, nondescript buildings in small, rural communities conceal killing sheds that attract large numbers of Hispanic immigrants who sweat it out — literally risking life and limb — in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “one of the most dangerous manufacturing jobs in the U.S.” Eric Schlosser echoed this point in a 2001 report for Mother Jones. “No government statistics can measure the true amount of pain and suffering in the nation’s meatpacking communities today,” he warned.

Across the Midwest, companies like poultry giant Tyson foods rely on immigrant labor to do what native-born Americans won’t do: run the gauntlet of flesh-cleaving cutting tools and automated factory speed while trying to avoid processing chicken nuggets fortified with human digits. Tyson is no stranger to flouting citizenship laws. In 2001, Tyson Foods was indicted in a plan to smuggle illegal immigrants from Mexico to work in its factories. The indicted employees included two executives. In 2006, another Big Meat bully, Swift and Company, made headlines when police and immigration officials raided six of its plants and arrested 1300 illegal immigrant workers. Indeed, the meatpacking industry offers a window into the mindset of a modern American capitalism that doesn’t give a damn about sending workers home to their families minus a crucial appendage or two.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation on immigration.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation on immigration.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Sara Murray observes, meatpacking is at the center of the debate over U.S. immigration policy. Reporting from Swift and Co.’s home base in Greeley, Colorado (one of the plants raided by immigration officials in 2006), Murray notes how meat production thrives on workers with Hispanic, Burmese, and Somali accents. The town itself is divided over Swift’s history of using undocumented workers, with some arguing that the practice drives down American wages. But Greeley mayor Tom Horton epitomizes conservatives’ tortured attempt to square free-market fundamentalism with a disregard for immigration laws. “‘We’re a pretty conservative community, and I would say we don’t want illegals,'” he stated, “‘but we do want a labor force.'” Horton also admitted that most locals didn’t want to work in the slaughterhouses. So, really, who can blame them for repeatedly reaching back into the undocumented grab-bag?

The meatpacking industry’s willingness to repeatedly tap the sordid well of undocumented labor exposes the brazen contradictions at the heart of America’s conservative capitalist dream world. Flush with an incontestable congressional mandate granted by 36.4 percent of registered voters, the emboldened GOP is vowing to put a stop to President Obama’s plan to provide illegal immigrants with a potential path to citizenship even as they continue to dish out free-market tongue baths to the very same corporate structures that rely heavily on the blood and sweat of undocumented workers. As American conservatives prepare a last stand against the supposed onslaught of cheap labor, the meatpacking plants that line America’s political pockets continue to hide their illegal workers in the bloody corners of rural slaughterhouses. After all, these are the jobs that Americans won’t do — or at least won’t do so cheaply. The domestic Race to the Bottom races on.

The hypocrisy is both infuriating and obvious. Conservatives tell us that government is the problem; the enemy of market-based prosperity, and that businesses should do what’s necessary to escape the state’s unjust laws because businesses have an inalienable right to break free from the shackles of a U.S. government that is supposed to provide inalienable rights to its citizens. But these same conservatives say that companies can’t hire non-citizens because they’ll take jobs away from Americans whose native status is granted by the very same government that conservatives despise. If this is the case, then the right wing ought to consider the ramifications of a world where private interests aren’t beholden to the laws of the state, lest America’s free-market race itself permanently to the bottom of an entrail-splattered factory floor.

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  1. I hadn’t considered the inherent conflict between support for free market forces and a lack of support for immigration. Great observation.

  2. Indeed, a very heartening intelligence exudes from this article.

    I scour the Internet, and I find in the U.S. Intellectual horizon troves of confused ideas–seemingly detached from historic and contemporary geopolitical context.

    I am a white male laborer, 51 years old, living in Florida.

    The work I engage is refused by most Central American and Mexican workers.

    No, I am not seduced by the facil, racialized hate-mongering that I see promoted by the so-called “white nationalists–and I observe the hypocrisy of the white middle classes that use the cheap wages to pad their bank balances, but they won’t cut Hispanic workers without legal papers a break (because they broke the law getting here to dig and clean toilets!)

    It sickening–and I don’t often read or listen to analysis of our current situation that is informed and cogent.

    Well done. I look forward to reading the body of your essays.

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