Report — From the February 2013 issue

This Land Is Not Your Land

Deciding who belongs in America

( 3 of 11 )

Vazquez doesn’t remember much about his journey to the United States from Chichihualco, a village of 10,000 people in the mountains of southern Mexico. It was 1991, and he was sixteen. “My mom, she make some call and we go,” he told me. They took a winding dirt road through the Sierra Madre del Sur down to Chilpancingo, where they caught a northbound bus to Mexico City. From the capital they took another bus — about thirty-six hours — to Ciudad Juárez. Once they were within sight of the U.S. border crossing, a coyote hustled everyone through a hole in the corrugated-steel fence and down an embankment into the concrete containment chute that channels the Rio Grande between Juárez and El Paso. At the shift change for the border guards, Vazquez, his mother, and several others were pulled across the river, one by one, on an inner tube held between two lengths of rope. Once on the El Paso side, they were told to go to a city park, where they were given false identification papers and bus tickets north.

As children, many of the residents of Chichihualco had worked as braceros, picking their way from the lettuce fields of California to the cherry orchards of Washington State. After suffering through the Mexican economy’s multiple crises in the 1980s, some of these migrant workers began thinking of moving north of the border permanently. But full-time residents would need year-round employment, not seasonal jobs in the fields. Fortunately, the meat-processing plants of Kansas and eastern Nebraska were hiring.

It wasn’t just Hormel attracting undocumented workers to Nebraska. Fremont Beef, a Cargill-owned plant in Schuyler, Tyson plants in Madison and Norfolk, and Wimmer’s Meats in West Point all began employing large numbers of Hispanic immigrants. Caravans of minibuses made the pilgrimage from Chichihualco to Chilpancingo every month, driving north from Mexico City through Monterrey to Piedras Negras, just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. “After a rest and once their supplies are set,” Business Mexico magazine reported in 2003,

it’s only a few hours through the desert mountains of southern Texas to the safe house — a motel where the groups split off either to Schuyler or Fremont in Nebraska or Liberal or Dodge City in Kansas.

In an interview with the Herald Mexico in 2005, Chichihualco’s mayor estimated that hundreds of thousands of dollars were sent to his town from Nebraska and Kansas each month. With those funds, Vazquez told me, the highway into town had been paved, the narrow main thoroughfare had been widened into a tree-lined avenue, and stuccoed brick-and-mortar homes had been built among the old adobe huts.

For Vazquez, the work at Hormel was supposed to be temporary, just enough for him to get on his feet and start a business in Fremont. He spent a year or so on the kill floor, hitting hogs with a prod to stun them for slaughter, before he was finally promoted to “sticking” — plunging a steel blade into each pig’s jugular to drain it of blood. He put away enough money to qualify for a home loan, and he took in renters to help cover his mortgage payments. He had plans to start a restaurant, a bakery, maybe even a small grocery store.

But then Bob Warner, a member of Fremont’s city council, proposed the idea of an anti-immigration ordinance, one that would outlaw the harboring, hiring, and transporting of illegal immigrants. Warner was unapologetic about his goal of forcing undocumented workers out of town. “When they find out that Fremont is not a haven for illegal immigration,” he said at the meeting, “they will leave.” (In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Mitt Romney envisioned something similar nationwide: “The answer is self-deportation,” he said, “which is people decide they can do better by going home.”)

Though Vazquez and his family were U.S. citizens (he and Miguela applied as minors and were processed quickly; the couple’s five children were born here), their renters were not. When word of the proposed ordinance spread among the workers at Hormel, Vazquez’s tenants, already two months behind on their rent, left without warning — or payment. He searched frantically for new renters, but it seemed everyone was fleeing. Vazquez defaulted on his loan, and he and his family left town, too.

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