This Story of One Nursing Mother Shows How America Treats Its Essential Workers

A crowd of protesters, one holding up an ACLU sign that says "Families Belong Together."
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On Monday, the Washington Post reported that cases of coronavirus infections among front-line workers in the food processing industry continue to surge. As the Post noted, the number of workers who have died from COVID-19 across the country has at least tripled, while the number who have been infected at three of the country’s largest meat processing companies—Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS—in the past month has increased from 3,000 to more than 11,000. As undocumented immigrants, many of these front-line workers faced the threat of both detention and deportation long before the pandemic began. And though the coronavirus did not create the dangerous plight of the immigrant essential worker, it certainly augmented it, adding the risk of infection to the immigration enforcement process. The story of Maria Domingo Garcia, an undocumented mother arrested in a raid and deported to Mexico, shines a spotlight on the suffering of many undocumented essential workers, forcing us to examine what it takes to put meat on American tables—and whom we are willing to sacrifice to do so.

Last August, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted the largest coordinated immigration raid in our country’s history, arresting 680 undocumented immigrants across seven food processing plants in central Mississippi. For Domingo Garcia, that morning in August was the last time that she saw her three children in person and that she was able to nurse her then 4-month-old daughter. After the raid, Domingo Garcia was taken 180 miles away from her family, where she was detained in LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana. In December, she was deported to Mexico.

When her plane touched down in Mexico—the country where she was born and maintains citizenship—Domingo Garcia planned to apply for the paperwork needed to return to Guatemala, where she lived from age 9 to 18, and where her mother was born. Her husband, a Guatemalan citizen who also has a deportation case pending in the U.S., planned to send their two youngest children to Guatemala so that they could reunite with their mother.

But Domingo Garcia is now trapped in Mexico, where coronavirus-related regulations and delays make it impossible for her to see her children at any point in the near future. And with the current state of travel restrictions, bureaucratic processing, and endless unknowns, Domingo Garcia’s reunion with her family continues to be unclear.

When Domingo Garcia was working on the chicken “disassembly line” in August, no one could have imagined the impact that the novel coronavirus would have on every aspect of our daily lives. And we had yet to see how the virus would sweep through environments packed with people working in concentrated areas with inadequate sanitation and protection measures—places like the poultry plant at which Domingo Garcia worked, or the detention facilities in which she would be held.

Before she was deported, every morning at 4 a.m., Domingo Garcia woke up to get ready for work. She left her home at 5:30 a.m., drove to the chicken plant, punched her timecard, fastened her white robe and apron, and donned iron gloves. She then spent the next eight hours wielding her knife to separate wings and legs from chicken bodies. Sometimes, she says, she had to process one chicken per minute. Other times, it would slow to one chicken per 10 minutes. With a median salary of $13.23 per hour, this type of work in poultry processing provided a better wage for Domingo Garcia than she was likely to have in Guatemala.

The history of meatpacking plants shows a push and pull between laborers—including immigrants and the many black workers, often women, who work alongside them—and corporate interests. What has ultimately resulted is a large system of food processing plants throughout the U.S. that tend to thrive on the labor of people of color.

For undocumented workers, it’s not only the threat of joblessness and poverty that allows for their exploitation in these settings, but the perpetual and looming threat of deportation. Food processing plants have been the site of some of the largest immigration raids in U.S. history. The second largest immigration raid in the country took place at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008, with media and reporters documenting the fallout that extended out into the decade. The Obama administration ceased these large-scale work raids in favor of more surreptitious methods of enforcement, but the Trump administration has returned to brutal large-scale work site raids, conducting multiple in 2019, including at a meatpacking plant in Bean Station, Tennessee, and another in Salem, Ohio.

Meanwhile, the job has become more dangerous in the era of COVID-19. Poultry processing—in the disassembly line form that makes it so efficient—minimizes spaces between employees and bathroom breaks and usually provides crowded spaces in which to eat and socialize. These markers for meatpacking efficiency are precisely what have made these spaces ideal for the transmission of the coronavirus. Scott County—where Domingo Garcia was employed and the site of last year’s most devastating ICE raids—had the highest per capita infection rate in Mississippi, according to a Reuters analysis. Reuters also found that “about one-third of the cases in the county are among employees of chicken-processing plants.” Across the United States, meanwhile, the New York Times reported that as of Wednesday, of the top 50 sites with the largest clusters of coronavirus infection, 13 of them are food processing plants. Of the remaining 37 sites, 32 of them are prisons, jails, and correctional facilities. While only 2,700 of the nation’s 146,000 prisoners in federal facilities have been tested, 70 percent of those tested were positive for COVID-19. Detention facilities mirror prison systems in multiple ways, including an incredible lack of testing (only 5 percent) and more detainees (51 percent) testing positive than negative for COVID-19.

Indeed, COVID-19 has spread rapidly in facilities like the one in which Domingo Garcia was detained, LaSalle ICE Processing Center. In LaSalle, according to Domingo Garcia, she stayed in a room of 75 people, sleeping on bunk beds, and shared six bathrooms among those detained with her. As rates of coronavirus infection in Louisiana climbed, fear spread inside LaSalle. Multiple women, at least one of whom was detained at the same time as Domingo Garcia, were pepper-sprayed by guards after opposing the facilities’ lax regard for spacing and hygiene. This was not the only instance of guards using pepper spray on detainees in ICE facilities demonstrating against unsafe conditions that left them potentially exposed to the coronavirus. In Otay Mesa Center in California, detainees engaged in a hunger strike to protest their conditions.

Domingo Garcia, of course, was not in LaSalle to see her once-fellow detainees get pepper-sprayed. Instead, she was taken out of detention in December, one week before the emergence of a mysterious disease in Wuhan, China. Now months into the pandemic, the U.S. has failed to respond on the most basic level, placing the lives of many undocumented essential workers at risk and breaking apart families, all in the name of profit and policy.

When Maria Domingo Garcia first found out about the coronavirus, she said that she wasn’t worried about it. She had far more pressing things on her mind, like when and how she would see her family again. Now, reflecting from Mexico on the climbing rates of infection in her home state, Mississippi, she says: “I worry for my kids and my husband, who are still there. And I’m not there to care for my kids.” If she were still there, she says, she’d be able to make sure her children wash their hands. If children are not constantly reminded to wash their hands, she says, they forget.