- The owner of Southeastern Provision, a slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tennessee, pleaded guilty last week to federal charges of hiring undocumented immigrants to work in his company and authorizing two plant managers to do the same, according to Meat + Poultry News.
- James Brantley also filed guilty pleas in response to two counts of willful failure to collect or pay unemployment taxes and one count of wire fraud, WBIR reported. He admitted not paying nearly $1.3 million in taxes, hiring at least 150 undocumented immigrants and withdrawing an estimated $25 million in cash from a local bank for several years to pay workers each week.
- The charges stemmed from an April raid at the slaughterhouse by agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who arrested 11 people and detained 86 on suspicion of being in the country illegally — although 32 of the 86 were later released. Most of the workers were reportedly from Mexico.
The Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration is bad news for farms and factories in the food and agriculture sectors, which heavily rely on undocumented workers. According to U.S. Department of Labor data quoted by Forbes, 57% of the U.S. agricultural workforce is undocumented. Should these workers become unavailable, farms would likely have to pay higher wages to replace them and consumers could face higher food prices, among other consequences.
While the situation at Southeastern Provision had reportedly been going on for many years, now that the federal government has cracked down on the facility, other production plants may have problems hiring undocumented workers due to fears that it could expose them to an ICE raid and potential prosecution.
U.S. unemployment is at a 17-year low, so food businesses looking to fill processing positions are having a tough time, even when they only hire documented workers. Their options seem to be raising pay levels or adopting more automated technology — or perhaps some of both.
For processing plants, which have been expanding as consumer demand rises, there may be a silver lining to the current stockpile of frozen meat and poultry products. Between the oversupply and the slowing of exports because of tariffs from Mexico and China, there may be no need to hire workers and ramp up production just to add to the situation. But once the oversupply decreases, and if there's a ceasefire in the tariff wars, the facilities could face staffing problems once again.
A somewhat different problem confronts the crab industry in Maryland, where foreign workers have typically arrived on special H-2B temporary visas to pick crab meat from the shell. But now, because the Trump administration shifted those visas to a lottery system, many of those seasonal workers — often from Mexico — aren't available, and there aren't enough replacement workers to do what is considered a difficult and monotonous job.
As long as current immigration policies remain in place — and Congress fails to pass any meaningful immigration reform — it's likely the nation's farms and processing plants will continue to face a labor shortage. It's also unknown whether raising wages will be enough to attract documented workers to replace those undocumented immigrants willing to work for less but no longer allowed in the country.