Immigration raids 10 years ago didn't change this meat-packing town's job market


Nigel Duara, Los Angeles Times

Jul 14, 2017


Upon his wife’s death, George Katrouzos dropped his three children at a Chicago orphanage with a promise: He would make a life in Grand Island, Neb. — a town that was going someplace, a town that had streetlights — and he would come back for them.


Katrouzos, who came to America from Greece, did both. He opened a lunchroom in the teeth of the Great Depression and after six months retrieved the kids. It was 1933, and the family of four sometimes traded food with other vendors to get by.


Katrouzos’ grandson, also named George, now runs the place, scolding regulars over coffee, shyly explaining to customers that, no, in nearly a century, his family never has sprung for an ice machine.


The story of the Coney Island Lunch Room in Grand Island is a familiar one among 20th century immigrants here on the Great Plains: A newcomer makes a gamble in a cold, new place and it pays off, for his children and their children, while the family itself becomes a bedrock of the community.


“Definitely the all-American story,” says the younger Katrouzos. “The little lunchroom kind of keeps in its own little bubble while the world outside goes by.”


In the 21st century, Grand Island and other Midwestern towns are again at the forefront of Great Plains immigration and the national debate over immigrant labor in the the American workforce.


Today, 1 in 9 Nebraskans is Latino or Asian, many lured by jobs at JBS USA, operator of the local meatpacking plant that is Grand Island’s biggest employer.


Few of these immigrants have forged the New World success story that Katrouzos and his family managed to build. Some of them wound up being deported in immigration raids at the meat plant, ostensibly to free up jobs for native Nebraskans. But few locals took those jobs.


The story of Grand Island, instead, is a tale of successive waves of migration, and generations of hardship.


Nebraska, flat and featureless, has always been available to those willing to endure it.


Swift & Co. opened the meatpacking plant here in the 1960s and it quickly attracted hundreds of Mexicans and Guatemalans, who dominated its workforce.


The first big attempt to crack down on illegal immigration came in 2006, when immigration agents stormed the plant and five others across the country, detaining 1,300 people.


The complaint then from anti-immigrant politicians was that undocumented workers were taking local jobs, and the promise from the federal government was that the immigration raids would open up jobs for Americans. Local municipalities would thrive.


But in the intervening decade, that assurance has proved hollow.


The native-born population in Grand Island did not take the jobs opened by the deportation of Latino workers, nor are those Americans particularly better off.


Instead, the deported Mexicans and Guatemalans were replaced by Somalis...