By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN / Associated Press
The largest single-site workplace raid in U.S. history may have cost a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa nearly half its employees, but it's been a boon to labor recruiters around the country.
After federal immigration agents raided Agriprocessors, Inc., and arrested nearly 400 undocumented workers, Gavino Bravo's phone started ringing.
Suddenly a steady — though mostly illegal — stream of workers willing to toil long hours in difficult conditions for low wages had dried up. And the northeast Iowa meatpacking plant needed hundreds of new employees. Fast.
From a cluttered office suite a block off Main Street in this city near the Mexican border, Bravo, his father Jose and their Bravo Labor Agency set out to fill the void. So far, they've recruited about 200 workers for Agriprocessors, sending them north on buses in batches of 10 to 15.
Bravo and other recruiters applaud the recent crackdowns by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at jobsites in Iowa, Texas and elsewhere.
"That's great for us — they're going to have to come to us for workers," said Bravo, who is paid a flat fee — he would say how much — for each worker he recruits.
Under normal circumstances, meat processors and other large employers that rely on immigrant labor have little need for outside recruiters. Agriprocessors had established labor supply lines from Mexico, Guatemala and some Eastern European countries.
"New employees come to Agriprocessors mainly through word-of-mouth," its company Web site says. "As a result, many of Agriprocessors' new employees found their jobs through family members already working for the company."
But with nearly half its workers jailed and awaiting deportation, those lines were suddenly severed.
"They're just trying to reconstruct the migrant labor supply that was blown to pieces by the raid," said Lourdes Gouveia, director of the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Gouveia, a sociology professor who has studied food processing plants and their ties to immigration, said that while some of the largest companies, such as Tyson Foods, recruit internally, more and more companies depend on outside agencies to refill the labor pool after a raid.
"It happens more with raids because they're desperate," Gouveia said.
The depth of that desperation was apparent in Amarillo earlier this summer, when a recruiter for the Iowa plant cruised homeless shelters and the bus station in search of potential hires.
Cathy Manes, director of employment services at Faith City Ministries in Amarillo, said the recruiter asked if he could discuss job opportunities at Agriprocessors following the shelter's regular chapel service.
Manes said she had questions about the company and safety and welfare of its workers and decided not to recommend the jobs to her clients.
"I didn't want to uproot someone and them be treated poorly," Manes said.
Jacobson Staffing, a temporary worker agency, took over recruitment for the Iowa plant in early June. Ryan Regenold, who oversees the Agriprocessors account for Jacobson, said the Amarillo recruiters were already working for Agriprocessors when Jacobson came on. He said in most cases the Amarillo recruits didn't pan out.
"They were people that came up here looking for a handout," said Ryan Regenold, who oversees the Agriprocessors account. The company offered them bus tickets back to Amarillo and most accepted, he said.
Things went badly for workers another staffing agency sent to Agriprocessors in May.
Ten days after sending about 150 workers to the plant, Labor Ready pulled them out citing concerns over safety conditions, said Stacey Burke, spokeswoman for Labor Ready's parent company, True Blue. She declined to detail the safety issues.
Regenold, however, said Agriprocessors decided to send the Labor Ready workers home after safety incidents.
The spring raid came amid investigations into labor, food safety and environmental violations at the plant. The company has been accused in recent years of mistreating animals and employees.
Labor officials have said they were investigating possible wage violations at the plant and the state has accused Agriprocessors of violating child labor laws.
Since June 2, Jacobson Staffing has supplied about 900 temporary workers to Agriprocessors, with about 480 still on the payroll as of Aug. 1, said Regenold.
Jacobson started with ads in local newspapers, exhausted the labor pool within driving distance and expanded the search, adding another recruiting firm and using four of its own recruiters.
Jacobson runs all of its potential hires through the government's E-Verify system to make sure applicants are in the U.S. legally and are able to work.
The search was easier for Bravo.
His agency ran ads in Spanish-language newspapers and on Mexican radio stations in the Rio Grande Valley and had little trouble finding workers though only about one quarter were skilled in meat processing. Bravo's simple ads only said that the jobs were out of state and the applicants must have permission to work in the U.S. Bravo does not use E-Verify, but requires applicants to show original documents indicating they can work legally in the U.S.
Bravo has been sending laborers to sugar cane fields in Louisiana, dairy farms in Maine and grain silos in South Dakota for years, Bravo said.
The $10 per hour starting wage offered by Agriprocessors is enough to get workers to relocate to Iowa, he said.
"There are not that many opportunities for work here and the opportunities there are, are low paying," Bravo said. A new pile of applications in Bravo's office from friends and relatives of the first batch of workers he sent to Iowa indicate that a new labor pipeline is already forming.
An attempt at comprehensive immigration reform failed late last year amid an immigration crackdown at work sites nationwide. In fiscal year 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents made 4,000 administrative arrests of workers who were in the country illegally and 863 criminal arrests for more serious offenses. The arrests were ten times the number made five years earlier.
Through the first eight months of this fiscal year, ICE has matched the criminal arrests from last year and made 2,900 administrative arrests.
Bravo said business has improved along with enforcement.
"I don't think they'll be able to go back to undocumented workers because they're being scrutinized so much," Bravo said.
"I knew sooner or later it was going to catch up with them," he said.
Associated Press Writer Anabelle Garay in Dallas contributed to this report.