On the Front Lines of Trump's Immigration War in the U.S. Heartland

Worthington, Minnesota, home to a major meatpacking plant with a majority immigrant workforce, is a microcosm of an expanding border regime where a power struggle unfolds between longtime residents and newcomers.


Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA)

July 9, 2019


Nolasco Gomez is a former union organizer and is now the editor of Minneapolis based Workday Minnesota, the first online labor news publication in the state. The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization.



For immigrants in Worthington, Minnesota, a town of 13,000 near the Iowa border, every day is daunting. “Every day you wake up. Good for you. You get to go home, see your family again, even better,” says Jessica Lee Velasco, a lead organizer in Worthington with Unidos Minnesota. “And that's sad. That's not a way to live.”


Lee Velasco’s organization, Unidos Minnesota, has played a large role in pushing for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in Minnesota, alongside a coalition of Democrats, some business and farm groups, law enforcement, and immigration advocates, as well as a few Republicans. Rallies were held earlier this year to draw attention to proposed legislation among the broader community and to pressure legislature to pass the bill. In Worthington, Lee Velasco coordinated petition signings and rallies. Ultimately, the Democratic-controlled House approved the bill, but the Republican-controlled Senate never voted on it, and amid last minute negotiations it failed to make it into a compromise bill. The battle over drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants represents a broader struggle in Worthington and across the U.S. heartland. 


Worthington’s immigrant population has grown in recent years due to the presence of the JBS USA meatpacking plant, the largest employer in the city with an estimated 1,800 employees. The plant is also the site of one of the largest immigration enforcement actions in U.S. history, when the company was owned by Swift. When ICE agents came to Worthington in 2006, hundreds of undocumented workers were arrested at the facility. The raid targeted various Swift locations around the country, and nearly 1,300 people were apprehended.


Shortly after the raids, JBS USA—the U.S. wing of the Brazilian company is one of the world’s largest meat producers—purchased the plant, a consolidation that reflects changes in the industry itself. The plant is an economic driver for the entire region, as electrical contractors, construction companies, livestock growers, and trucking firms all interact with the plant.


Worthington is an illustration of the extension of the U.S.-Mexico border as enforcement actions have moved into the interior of the country, beginning under the George W. Bush administration with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2001. The expansion of the border security regime continued apace under president Barack Obama, and has been extended under the Trump administration to target all immigrants, especially as he threatens an intensification of workplace raids, something the previous administration had backed off on. This has raised fears not only among immigrants without papers, but for all Latinx and Latin American residents, who fear profiling and discrimination.


In Worthington, the border is the main road going through town, where immigrant laborers drive to work each day at the meat packing plant and its associated industries. This is why the drivers’ license bill carried so much weight for a town like Worthington where the possibility of being pulled over, resulting in the eventual transfer to ICE, looms large.


The specter of ICE means that many parents are forced to have conversations with children to prepare them for the possibility of them not coming home. “Those are hard conversations,” says Lee Velasco. “How do you prepare their children for that possibility?” Her own children expressed concern about their status following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, even though her Mexican-Laotian descendant family has papers.


It’s a fear that can’t help but feel relevant in an environment of “zero-tolerance” policy, where the administration is limiting legal avenues for immigrants to remain in the country, families are being separated at the border, asylum seekers are demonized, and private detention contractors are incarcerating immigrants for longer and longer periods in increasingly disturbing conditions.


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