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Georgia Poultry Plant Deaths a Grim Reminder that Undocumented Workers Are Essential and Unprotected

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America needs to protect all essential workers, and to legalize undocumented essential workers 

 Last week, a nitrogen leak at a poultry plant in Gainesville, GA killed six workers and injured many others. A follow-up New York Times story by Richard Fausset and Miriam Jordan, “A Georgia Chicken Town Reels After a Plant Disaster,” captures why the tragedy is part of a larger pattern of dangerous and dehumanizing treatment toward “essential” undocumented immigrant workers, many of whom are Latino. 

Essential workers need to be protected from exploitation and undocumented essential workers need to be legalized. A letter released this weekend from 100 Members of Congress calls on House Democratic leadership to create a “pathway to citizenship for essential immigrant workers and their families, Dreamers, and TPS holders” as part of the economic recovery package expected this spring. A December 2020 report from FWD.us found that more than 5 million of those designated as “essential workers” are undocumented workers. 

As Wall Street Journal columnist (and former Reagan speechwriter) Peggy Noonan wrote last spring, “you have seen who’s delivering the food, stocking the shelves, running the hospital ward, holding your hand when you’re on the ventilator. It is the newest Americans, immigrants, and some are here illegally. They worked through an epidemic and kept America going.” Noonan says we should extend an offer of citizenship to these workers, “With a note printed on top: ‘With thanks from a grateful nation.’”

Below, find key excerpts from the New York Times story and a quote from America’s Voice:

“The morning after a nitrogen leak in a chicken plant killed six people in the self-proclaimed poultry capital of the world, nearly everyone in its big Latino community choked down their grief and fear and did what they had come to Gainesville to do. They woke up before sunrise on Friday and went to work.

…The accident left a punctuating sort of pain in Gainesville, a city of 43,000 that is about 40 percent Latino, underscoring the illness and economic hardship that have been ravaging the work force in Georgia’s best-known chicken town as a result of the coronavirus.

In much the same way some of Gainesville’s undocumented workers have feared getting coronavirus treatment or testing in recent months, some of the 130 workers evacuated from the plant on Thursday ducked out of the official rendezvous point before undergoing medical checks because they feared that being noticed by authorities might lead to their deportation, according to Jennifer McCall, a local immigration lawyer.

…“The Gainesville poultry industry preys on immigrant labor, recruiting undocumented workers and refugees to work in some of the most dangerous conditions of any sector in the economy,” said John Fossum, a researcher at the University of Texas who has studied the industry. “It is an industrywide problem but particularly acute in Gainesville.”

…As elsewhere in the country, after being deemed essential by the federal government, poultry plants have striven to keep production at normal, pre-pandemic levels. In May 2020, when Covid-19 was rampaging through the poultry facilities, 56 percent of those who got sick were Latino workers, and Hall County had twice the infection rate of neighboring Gwinnett County.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice: 

As essential workers help keep Americans at home and alive, it is unconscionable that America demands that they work in unsafe conditions, many virtually unprotected by American labor laws. We call on the State of Georgia, the Congress and every American who benefits from immigrant labor to demand an investigation into workplace safety, protections, testing and treatment. Our government should protect these workers, not just their bosses. And Congress should legalize undocumented essential workers who labor in harm’s way to deliver for us every day.