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632: Our Town - Part One

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Act One: Act One

Ira Glass

Today's whole show came out of this thing that we heard that politicians said. And we wondered-- is that true? Like, was he right? And the answer set us on this eight-month journey, where at some point, like the best journeys, I think, we forgot what the original reason was that we set out. And we just started to learn all kinds of things that we had never imagined back at the beginning.

Where we ended up was Albertville, Alabama, a mountain town in the northern part of the state, a town that went through a huge change in population very quickly. Back in 1990, Albertville was 98% white. Then it got a flood of outsiders, mostly from Mexico, documented and undocumented immigrants. So many people that after just 20 years the all-white town was more than 1/4 Latino. Basically, Albertville was around 15,000 people. It got another 6,000. Most of them came to work in the poultry processing plants in town.

And one nice thing about Albertville-- if you want to understand what really happened there during the town's big change-- it's small enough that you can just show up. Like, everybody's still kind of right there. Like, if you walk into one of the poultry plants and ask, who was the first Latino worker to show up here? They actually know. One of my coworkers, Miki Meek, did just that.

Miki Meek

Do you remember who one of the first immigrants was to work at the plant?

Man

Gregorio or something like that.

Woman 1

Gregoria, Gregoria something. I don't know his last name. They called him ravioli.

Miki Meek

They call him ravioli? Why ravioli?

Woman 1

I don't know. Cause his name's hard to pronounce, I guess.

[LAUGHTER]

Woman 2

And he couldn't speak any English. Kind of shy, you know? And his name was Gregoriola, and he's still at the plant.

Ira Glass

We did locate this mythical Latino chicken plant Neil Armstrong, Gregorio. And he is kind of shy, wouldn't make eye contact, mumbled. And after we made three visits to his house, he finally got rid of us by fobbing us off on his uncle.

Fernando Martinez

Gregorio? I mean, he not talk to nobody, too quiet.

Miki Meek

He's too quiet?

Fernando Martinez

Yeah.

Ira Glass

His uncle, Fernando Martinez, is the opposite of shy-- extroverted, super-friendly, an amateur guitarist and singer with a gigantic mustache and shaggy hair that make him look like the 1970s country rock star, Freddy Fender. Fernando and Gregorio came to the chicken plants in Albertville right when this all began, sometime around 1991, neither can remember exactly. And one of the people Fernando met was Pat. Now in her 60s and eligible for retirement, she's still working, still tough, always on the move.

Pat

That's what I like about it. I go to work. I clock in at 15 to 4:00 every morning. I'm moving. I'm moving.

Ira Glass

She's been at her plant for 44 years and has held just about every job there. Pulled out guts and lungs. Ran the box machine. Sawed chickens into nine-piece meals for KFC. She befriended Fernando and Gregorio.

Miki Meek

Before Greg, had you ever met a Latino before?

Pat

No. He was really my first. I kind of-- I wasn't too sure.

Ira Glass

Basically, Fernando just sat down at Pat's lunch table one day, and they started talking tentatively. Here's Fernando speaking through an interpreter. It's easier for him than being interviewed in English.

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

And from then on, I sat with her every day.

Miki Meek

What would you guys talk about? How did you communicate?

Fernando Martinez

Yeah, you know, [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

You're never really talking about work. They would ask me if I had a girlfriend or a wife.

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Hey, Fernando, you got any kids? And I said, who knows?

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

And then we started laughing together.

Ira Glass

But then in a few years at this plant, things would get pretty tense and suspicious between the Mexican workers and the local workers, and things would get pretty ugly in town too. But back then at the very beginning, newcomers were a novelty, not a threat. It wasn't hard to get along.

Pat

And we were just sitting there one day, and we were talking. And he said, Patricia? I said, what? I said, what did you call me? He said, that's your name in Spanish. My name is Patricia, but he said Pa-tree-cee-ah. And I thought, God, that sounds so pretty. I've never liked my name. But ever since he said it, I've liked my name.

Miki Meek

(LAUGHING) Oh, really?

Pat

Yep. It's cornball. I know. But he said Patricia.

Miki Meek

You thought that was beautiful.

Pat

Yeah, it did. It sounded so beautiful.

Fernando Martinez

Patricia. Patricia.

Ira Glass

OK, so we went to Albertville because of something that a politician said, and the politician was Jeff Sessions, longtime Alabama senator, currently President Trump's Attorney General. It's Sessions' views on immigration that have become administration policy. The administration has proposed cutting the number of immigrants who come into this country each year in half.

And it especially targets the kind of workers who arrived in Albertville-- low-wage, unskilled workers who don't speak English. That's something Sessions has been pushing for for over a decade, and it's not a coincidence that those are the workers most targeted. A longtime ally of his in Washington on the immigration issue, Roy Beck, the founder of a group called NumbersUSA, has known Sessions since the '90s, says--

Roy Beck

I really doubt that he would have made immigration his signature issue if not for his experience with the poultry plants in Alabama.

Ira Glass

We wanted to see what Sessions saw, and we went looking for a poultry town that got a ton of immigrants. And in Alabama, the poster town for that is Albertville. Jeff Sessions has visited Albertville. He's spoken there. Met up with the mayor and residents about the immigrants who arrived. And whatever it is that Sessions saw in those Alabama chicken plants, it sent him down the road to some very strong positions. He declined our request for an interview, but here he is on the floor of the Senate in 2007.

Jeff Sessions

And big greedy businesses who hire illegal workers, and hiring those numbers by the tens or hundreds of thousands, will pull down the wages of American citizens. Why would we do that? Why don't we take care of our American workers?

Ira Glass

This is him in 2014.

Jeff Sessions

I talked to a business person recently about a factory that they have. The work sounded pretty good to me, and he wants to bring in foreign workers to Alabama. Well, we've got unemployment in Alabama. We've got people on unemployment insurance. We've got people on welfare, and food stamps, and assistance that need to be taking those jobs.

Ira Glass

The former state senator, Scott Beason, who helped write Alabama's landmark 2011 self-deportation bill, once said, quote, "if you don't believe illegal immigration will destroy a community, go and check out parts of Alabama around Albertville." So was Albertville destroyed? Are Beason and Jeff Sessions right? To figure out the answer, we've interviewed more than 100 people, workers and managers at the poultry plants, politicians, law enforcement, documented and undocumented immigrants, kids of immigrants who grew up in town, older white residents who hated the changes.

We also had an economist look at what happened to wages and to jobs. Another economist estimated what it cost the town to pay for schools and public services for the newcomers. This is an issue where one side says that immigrants are an awful threat, stealing jobs, committing crimes, costing taxpayers. And the other side says that they're the exact opposite, the very source of our strength as a country, boosting the economy, adding diversity.

And here at our show we thought for once, rather than hash over those familiar arguments, let's just go to a place where immigration has happened and talk in a factual way about what the hell actually occurs when lots of low-wage, low-skill workers arrive from another country. Like, what's that actually do to everyone's lives? What we learned, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, and I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

So on today's show, we're going to talk about the effect that the newcomers had on jobs. So all the action's going to be inside the chicken plants. Next, we're going to take up what happened in town-- politics, schools, taxes, crime, all that.

My co-host for both shows is going to be my coworker, Miki Meek. She and I have been traveling down to Albertville with our colleague, Lilly Sullivan, many trips over the last eight months. Miki's the one who spent a lot of time talking to poultry workers. And Miki, the changes were a shock to longtime workers, right?

Miki Meek

So yeah, because the chicken plants were pretty much built for them. This happened right after World War II, when the state of Alabama realized it needed a new economic strategy. Cotton and corn weren't bringing in much for small farmers anymore. They wanted to keep people in jobs. So they decided to get the state into poultry production.

They wanted to stick a plant up north to kill and process chickens, and they let different towns compete for it. Albertville won and built the first plant near the middle of town, right next door to the high school. Many more plants joined later. And now poultry companies are the biggest employers in town. Poultry is also the biggest agribusiness in Alabama, almost 10% of the state's economy, a billion chickens every year.

Pat, who you heard earlier, she and her father were exactly the workers who these plants were built for. Growing up, she worked in the cotton fields with her dad. Then he got a job in a plant, and she followed him in soon after. She started as a giblet wrapper.

Pat

1973, August the 13th.

Miki Meek

How do you still remember the date?

Pat

It's just easy. [LAUGHTER] It's just August the 13, 1973. And you got to remember, this was the early years.

Miki Meek

OK, so what does that mean?

Pat

The early years, it was like a kind of unit. Same 18 ladies on that wrapping table, older, hard-working people that come out of the fields. It was family. It was family.

Miki Meek

Everybody knew the chicken plant was good pay, benefits, retirement, a decent job if you didn't finish high school. And that's mostly who took the jobs. Pat dropped out after ninth grade, got married, and had two kids. She took a job at the plant because--

Pat

I wanted to buy a house. And we penny-pinched, penny-pinched till we had our down payment.

Miki Meek

And so you got your house?

Pat

And we got this house.

Miki Meek

And it's this house right here?

Pat

This same house that we live in right now.

Ira Glass

One unusual thing about these poultry plants-- by the late 1980s, there were long term workers at the plants, for sure. But turnover was so high in the plants it's like you could always show up and just expect to get a job. You fall on tough times, you need to pick up money for a family emergency, you knew the plant was there.

The plants were like a public utility in that way. The head of HR at one of the plants, Tom Howell, said that when he started at Wayne Farms back in 1990-- this is before tons of Mexican workers showed up-- it was common to hire the same person five or six times in the same year.

Tom Howell

Well, they'd use the mirror test.

Miki Meek

And the mirror test is what?

Tom Howell

I'm surprised you don't know what the mirror test is. That's pretty simple. You just stick it under a person's nose, and if they fog that mirror up, you know they're breathing. So you put them to work.

Ira Glass

People joked that you could quit one plant in the morning and get hired by another plant in the afternoon. And the first real change to that came in the mid-1990s. By then, there was a rapid and steady stream of Mexican workers arriving, hundreds of them, mostly men, mostly here without their families.

Miki Meek

One of Pat's good friends is an especially helpful witness to what happened in their plant. This is a woman everybody calls Miss Martha-- wavy brown and gray hair and glasses. She's been there since the '70s and works at the supply window, which means she talks to just about everyone. They all have to go to her window to pick up gloves and aprons.

Miss Martha

Oh, it's the little gossip window, I guess. People just want to come up and talk, and I'm a good listener. So I listen to them.

Miki Meek

She says she likes to play 20 Questions at the window. I made her tell me some of the questions.

Miss Martha

How many kids you got? How far do you work from here? Your family live with you? You know, little simple questions that you lead up.

Miki Meek

And then when you know them a little bit better, what can you move on to?

Miss Martha

Got a girlfriend? You married? How much money you got in the bank?

[LAUGHTER]

And most of the time they'll tell me what they've done.

Miki Meek

She says when the Latino workers showed up, they and the local workers were kind of just thrown together in this fast-paced industrial workplace and had to improvise without being able to speak the same language. And it could be kind of nerve-wracking. Martha would train people on the saw line.

Miki Meek

Doesn't that feel kind of dangerous to be training somebody on how to use a saw when you can't really--

Miss Martha

Any time you trained somebody, yes, it was dangerous. That's the reason they only had certain people to train them, that had patience with them. I show him right here-- get the bird out. And I say-- [SLAPPING SOUND]

Miki Meek

You'd pat it?

Miss Martha

Into the saw, into the saw.

Miki Meek

But while they were working side by side there was this feeling of like, where'd these people come from? Why were they here all of a sudden and so many of them?

Miss Martha

It's kind of like an uneasy feeling. You're unsure. You don't know whether to trust them or whether not to trust them. And we didn't know whether they were legal, or they weren't legal or what. But there was a lot of them. You know, there's not-- I mean, you can just tell by the way they act.

Miki Meek

How's that?

Pat

They have a guard up on them.

Miki Meek

Like they don't want to get too close--

Pat

Like they don't want to get too close. They don't want to make conversation about certain things. And you have one that says I'm legal. I'm legal. I'm legal. And she gets fired three times because of bad paperwork.

Miki Meek

So I mean, how much would you ask? Was there a period where you were asking about it, and then you just--

Pat

Some of them would would act like they don't know-- no comprende, you know? That is when they don't want to tell you nothing.

Miki Meek

There were a lot of things that just look really sketchy. People would get fired and come back to work. And when they came back, they had a different name. Pat remembers watching one woman fill out a form they had if you wanted to get your birthday off. The woman was young, maybe early 30s.

Pat

And the birthday she put down had her 66 years old.

Miss Martha

And we have girls over the years, they had their 15 coming out parties?

Miki Meek

That's Martha again, and she's talking about quinceaneras, which you celebrate when you turn 15.

Miss Martha

They was giving out invitations.

Miki Meek

They were handing them out at work?

Miss Martha

Well, they did, until one of them got in trouble and they fired her. But yeah, she was so proud of it. So she started giving out invitations. And then that's how they found out she was lying about her age.

Miki Meek

How did you feel about that?

Miss Martha

Well, I didn't like it. I didn't like it-- the way they was sneaking in over here. And the company knows it.

Miki Meek

It seemed like the Mexicans were getting away with something. They were cheating the system. They were not here legally, and the company was helping them do it. Maybe the Mexicans weren't paying the same taxes. Lots of workers believe that, though, it wasn't true. The companies were required to take them out automatically.

Regardless, longtime workers started to believe the same thing that Jeff Sessions came to believe, that these new immigrants were taking jobs that didn't belong to them. A quiet resentment set in among the white workers at the plants. Everyone says you'd walk in and you could feel it. We'll hear the company's side of all this in the second half of the show.

They have a totally different story to tell. But the icing on the cake for the workers was that the company seemed to like what was happening. In fact, maybe they were even behind it. There's this thing I heard over and over from almost every local I talked to. Again, here's Pat and Martha.

Pat

I don't know whether it was true or not, but we were told that there was a sign put up at the border-- work in Albertville, Alabama, poultry.

Miss Martha

It had a 800 number that you could call.

Miki Meek

And it's on the border where?

Miss Martha

Right as you go into Texas.

Miki Meek

So do you think that's true, or do you think that's fake?

Miss Martha

Yes, it was true.

Miki Meek

Are you positive it was true?

Miss Martha

Yes. Yes.

Miki Meek

Where have you seen it? You saw a picture or what?

Miss Martha

I seen a picture of it.

Miki Meek

I never could find a picture of it. Some locals said it was more than one billboard. Some said it was in Texas. One woman said she saw it in Tijuana. But always, the sign named exactly one town in the whole country-- Albertville, Alabama.

Miki Meek

Did that make you feel betrayed by the company?

Pat

Yes, it did. Yes, it did. Because I put years in here. And I have drawed chickens, hung chickens, dumped chickens, pushed dead chickens, sawed, shoveled eyes, stacked boxes, cleaned chicken poop off of coops, and everything else. That is my plant. Still to this day, that is my plant.

Miki Meek

Who did you feel mad at? Did you feel mad at the Latinos? Were you mad at the company? Or was it--

Pat

No, I wasn't mad at the Latinos. I was mad at management. They were scheming, conniving, taking shortcuts to get them in. I'm mad-- I'm not mad. I'm upset. I'm hurt, really.

Miki Meek

So was there a sign at the border? I talked to a bunch of the men who came to Albertville in that first wave of Mexican workers about whether that's what brought them to town.

Miki Meek

Have you heard that?

[LAUGHTER]

Man

No, no, no. [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

I didn't know that.

Miki Meek

Have you heard about this?

Man

No. [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

But I don't think it's true.

Man

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Yeah, it's funny.

Miki Meek

Have you heard about this sign?

Man

[SPEAKING SPANISH] [LAUGHTER]

Interpreter

No, I don't know anything about that.

Miki Meek

So you were laughing. What makes you laugh about that?

Man

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Because they're saying that Wayne Farms is putting these--

Man

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

--yeah, they're putting these signs up at the border, and why at the border?

Miki Meek

So that Mexicans can see them and come get a job.

Man

[LAUGHS]

Miki Meek

They literally never heard of this. They worked side by side with the local workers for 20 years and had no idea that this was the story going around about them. This is a story that every local we talked to had heard of. So, no, they were not in the US because of a sign at the border.

In fact, what the American workers didn't know about these guys is that lots of these men who arrived in the early '90s had been in this country for years. They were not newly arrived immigrants stealing American jobs. They'd been here working and got amnesty when Ronald Reagan signed his big immigration reform in 1986. It legalized almost 3,000,000 people.

Some were seasonal workers in the tomato fields close to Albertville. Some were on farms in Oregon, California, Florida, Michigan. Some did construction work. They made their way to town, and the chicken plant seemed like a good deal. This was work that would happen regardless of rain or snow, no off months, a reliable paycheck. And even better, they could finally stay in one place, which meant they could also finally bring their families from Mexico.

This worker, we'll call Carlos, is pretty typical of that first wave. He'd been in the US since the '70s, got amnesty under Reagan, had five kids and a wife in Guanajuato that he only got to see once a year. He says he tried to stay connected to them by sometimes putting on his best clothes and going out with a camera.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

I would send them pictures, some pictures of, like, standing next to a car or a big house, and maybe they would think that I lived there.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH] [LAUGHTER]

Miki Meek

But that wasn't your car or house?

Carlos

No, no, no, no, no, no. [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

You start missing the love of your child, especially when you're gone for a year, and you miss them growing up.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Miki Meek

He was the foreman of an apple orchard in Michigan, a good job. But in Albertville, his wife could work with him at the chicken plant, double their income. They could send their kids to a much better school than back home.

And so after the first wave of men moved to town, word spread about these jobs, and the population started to shift from people who were in the country legally to lots of workers and family members who were not, who moved here directly from Mexico, arriving into town in packed cars and vans. Carlos says he brought his family legally but also told lots of people back home.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

So you start spreading the word. I'll tell, like, maybe two, three other Mexicans. I'll say, hey, you should come here, because there is lots and lots of work.

Ira Glass

They needed the work, because Mexico was in economic crisis. The currency crashed in 1994. NAFTA knocked lots of Mexicans out of work and hit small farmers hard, and a surge of people came to the United States. The number of undocumented people here more than tripled from 3.5 million in 1990 to over 11 million in 2010.

And large numbers were arriving in the southeast US for the first time. Carlos guessed that maybe 3,000 came to Albertville from his hometown at Guanajuato. Lots of people told us they liked how small Albertville was. That it wasn't a big city. It was pretty. It felt safe. It reminded them of home.

So when American workers in the Albertville plants looked around and wondered why in the world all these newcomers were suddenly showing up in their little town, this was the thing they didn't realize-- that an historic migration was under way, mostly from Mexico. The newcomers ended up in poultry plants all across the South-- Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas.

Because coincidentally, the poultry business was going through its own massive changes. It was desperate for employees. The poultry business was booming in the early '90s like it never had before. The industry had figured out how to make chickens grow to full size more cheaply in a much shorter period of time. And they were rebranding chicken from the special meal that you'd have once a week to total ubiquity, a healthy, convenient alternative to red meat.

[MUSIC - "CHICKEN TONIGHT"]

This Ragu commercial haunts the dreams of a generation of TV watchers. There's also the less healthy fast food version of chicken. Tyson started production of the McNugget for McDonald's, and soon chicken was everywhere.

Little Richard

(SINGING) Well, they got chicken at Taco Bell. That's right, 'cause it's brand new.

Ira Glass

That's Little Richard for Taco Bell. Homer Simpson advertised Church's Chicken.

Homer Simpson

Ooh, chicken! Must eat! Need money, any means necessary!

Ira Glass

The price dropped dramatically. People went from eating about 28 pounds of chicken a year in 1960 to almost 90 pounds per person per year today. Albertville's plants added the lines that took whole chickens and cut them up into the options you now see in the grocery store-- wings, tenders, boneless and skinless thighs and breasts. Their international market exploded, shipping dark meats, organs, and feet to Russia and China.

And that's the engine that was pulling in all these new workers to Albertville. The plant that's now Tyson Foods nearly quadrupled, from 250 workers to more than 900. Wayne Farms added around another 200 jobs. If there hadn't been a flood of new foreign workers to take those jobs, the companies might have had to pay more to attract employees to the plants. But that was not a choice they ever had to make.

Miki Meek

For the people who came with no papers, all the stuff that seemed so underhanded and devious to their American coworkers, it was surprisingly easy to pull off. This guy Oscar arrived in Albertville from Guanajuato in 1995, right before he turned 16, to join his father in the chicken plants. Legal age to work in a plant was 18, but that wasn't an obstacle.

Oscar

He gave me a card, like ID.

Miki Meek

Did he find you like a fake ID? Or what did you--

Oscar

Yeah. He found me a fake ID with my-- I think it was not even my face.

Miki Meek

It wasn't even your face?

Oscar

No. The guy was older than me.

Miki Meek

And did you think, this is not going to work?

Oscar

Yeah. Because, I mean, I was 16. And when I see the pictures, I was like, oh, my god.

Miki Meek

The guy in the ID was probably 25, 26. His name was Jose Lopez. And from then on, that's the name that Oscar went by.

Oscar

They call me Joe.

Miki Meek

Do you kind of think of yourself as Joe?

Oscar

Yeah. Imagine, working for 20 years-- I think it's 19, 20 years-- with that name. So it's like, I guess that's my nickname forever, I guess.

Miki Meek

Joe?

Oscar

Yeah.

Miki Meek

It's like a stage name, like an actor, but for the chicken plant.

Oscar

Yeah.

Miki Meek

How much did your American coworkers ask you about your legal status?

Oscar

A bunch.

Miki Meek

So how would they ask it? What would they say?

Oscar

What's your real name?

Miki Meek

What would you say?

Oscar

I would say, Jose. They said, no, that's not. I heard somebody call you another name. I tell him, that was my nickname.

Miki Meek

Could you tell-- did that make them mad? Or what did they think about that?

Oscar

They say that Mexicans go back to Mexico.

Miki Meek

Is there any part of that you're like, oh, it's understandable?

Oscar

Well, I don't really know. It's hard. When you don't have no more choice. I mean, you have to.

Miki Meek

It was really striking talking to them-- how the arrival of these Latino workers blew the minds of the local workers, turned their world upside down. But the Mexican workers didn't have any of that. They didn't have a lot of emotions about their white coworkers, didn't spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about them.

If the white workers didn't like them, whatever. They'd been through worse. Again, here's Fernando-- the guy who called Pat, Patricia.

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

You notice that people are staring at you, because you're something strange. And they're thinking, where do these people come from?

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

And they would just kind of glance at you to the side, like they don't want you there.

Miki Meek

How frustrating is that?

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

You don't really feel bad, because you get used to it.

Miki Meek

This guy named Claudio said he started trying to learn English, because he sensed his American coworkers were talking about him.

Claudio

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

And I would think, well, what are they saying? And so I'd come back home, and I would ask my daughter. So what they were saying were swear words in English.

Miki Meek

He says his daughter was in elementary school. Quick warning, this story has a curse word we've unbeeped here on the podcast. Anyway, one day, one of his American coworkers got mad at the way he was hanging live birds on the conveyor belt.

Claudio

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

He was saying that I was skipping a hanger, and then he would say to me--

Claudio

Hey, you motherfucker, Mexican.

Interpreter

Hey, motherfucker! Why are you skipping this? You know? Why do Mexicans come here if they're not going to work?

Miki Meek

So then you come home and you ask your daughter, what is motherfucker?

Claudio

Right. [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

She would write down for me how it's spelled and then how it's said. And I would have it on a piece of paper that I would carry with me.

Claudio

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

She would say, hey, dad, just use the same word with them.

Miki Meek

Again, here's Fernando.

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

A lot of times, they talk about you, and they'd use that word that they have-- wetbackers-- to describe you.

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

One time, I got mad and hit somebody in the face with a chicken, like this. He didn't do anything. He just kind of walked off. And this was the guy who ran that line.

Miki Meek

You hit him with a chicken? Did that feel good to do that?

Fernando Martinez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Well, you don't exactly feel good, but you feel a little bit calmer because that gets the person to shut up.

Miki Meek

He says he could get away with talking back because he had papers. There's no official estimate of how much of Albertville's Latino population was undocumented back then or is undocumented now. But people who know the community best-- who work as advocates and deal with tons of families-- say it's more than half undocumented. And maybe a lot more than half. The first waves were from Mexico. And then later, people from Guatemala and elsewhere.

Ira Glass

Lots of local workers said it wasn't long before management seemed to prefer the new Latino workers-- thought they were better workers. They picked up double shifts, didn't want to call attention to themselves or cause any problems. They didn't want to do anything that could make them lose their jobs-- didn't complain, didn't make a big deal about injuries. This is true even for the documented workers.

The government calls meat and poultry processing one of the most hazardous industries in the country. People get cut from working with sharp knives and scissors, they develop carpal tunnel syndrome from all the repetitive motion on the line. Carlos said that when he and his wife would get swollen hands from working on the line, he'd press on his fingers and blood and yellow puss would come out, chicken bones would get stuck under his fingernails, but he would just keep working.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

I had to take out the guts with my two hands. And I really wanted to leave, but I said, no, I have to do this work, this hard work.

Miki Meek

So when I talk to American workers, they say, I get mad when they say Mexicans work harder than white people. And they're like, it's not true. It's just that they don't speak up for their rights. And I was wondering what you think about that.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Yeah. We don't really know our rights. So we don't really know how to defend our rights in the work place. So, yeah, that's kind of a reason. But it's also because we have these families that are suffering that depend on us. I mean, they have us working from the time that we were kids, eight years old. Here, that doesn't really exist. So we do work harder.

Ira Glass

Carlos agrees with the local workers-- that the companies prefer Latinos. He'd see it play out at his plant.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

With my boss, I'll be talking to him, and like five workers will come along, and two of them will be Hispanic. And my boss will say to me, hey, give me those two, because they're going to have better work ethic, whereas the other people might not last as long. They might leave. But the plant loses money when that happens. And so my boss will say, those two-- those two are going to last.

Man

And we felt bad when the supervisors turned on us.

Miki Meek

This worker asked that we don't use his name.

Man

I think they felt that the Hispanics was more over-- above us. And I didn't see no difference. I mean, I thought, well, I can do just as much as this guy can, you know? But they didn't see that in us. They saw it in them. And after that, it seemed like it just changed-- like they turned on us and forgot about us. We felt forgotten.

We just felt like our jobs was in jeopardy. And from the time I clock in until the time I clock out, I was worried about what's going to happen to my future here at the chicken plant.

Miki Meek

He was one of a handful of black workers at his plant. When Latino workers came in, he says it was the first time he felt unified with his white coworkers-- both saw themselves as the American workers. Again, here's Pat.

Pat

It made us all think that we were just going to be pushed out the door, and they were going to bring all Hispanics in to replace us. Especially as older hands, you have a fear, all of a sudden, just slap you.

Ira Glass

Coming up, the government steps in on the side of the local workers. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Act Two

Ira Glass

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, what actually happens when immigrants arrive in large numbers? We're telling the story of Albertville, Alabama, which went from being a nearly all-white, Southern town to a town that's now lots of immigrants-- more than half of them undocumented, best as we can tell. My co-host for the hour is Miki Meek.

And at this point in our story, the longtime workers in the chicken plants have this feeling that there's right, and there's wrong, and people are breaking the law-- obviously, here illegally. And everybody's acting like this is just fine, and normal, and what the hell? And the companies seem to be not just fine with this but probably encouraging it. And some plants, evidence came in 1995, of just how much the companies knew and how far they'd go to keep undocumented workers in the plants.

That year, the government decided to take aggressive action against the wave of undocumented Mexican workers that were moving into poultry plants, carpet factories, and hotel jobs all across the South. They launched a series of raids, called Operation SouthPAW. PAW was short for Protecting American Workers.

Reporter

In Washington today, the Immigration Service has announced a very bold move to locate and deport illegal aliens. Federal agents have actually gone into factories and farm fields to locate illegal immigrants. And then they've gone one step further--

Ira Glass

The goal was to create job openings for American workers by arresting lots of people at work sites. A big show of force with over 100 INS and Border Patrol agents. They rode into Albertville with empty buses to haul people off to deportation. At the Gold Kist plant outside of town, workers cheered when they arrived. But at Hudson Foods, management had worked out a system to deal with the raids.

Miki Meek

I talked to Mark Ginzo. He worked at Hudson Foods as a bilingual chaplain. This is something you see at some chicken plants around the south-- chaplains to minister to the workers. Mark remembers they were raided a few times. And they'd know in advance if immigration was coming, because agents had to get a warrant first.

Mark Ginzo

Usually it was somebody outside who would-- or they would look through the windows and see them coming in and start screaming, la migra! La migra!

Miki Meek

And la migra means?

Mark Ginzo

Immigration.

Miki Meek

Then what happens in the plant? What do you see happen?

Mark Ginzo

Oh, you see people running all over the place-- you know, the Mexicans, of course. But they knew-- they knew where to go. They knew all the hiding places in the place.

Miki Meek

And where were those places in the plant?

Mark Ginzo

There was one particular room-- oh, my god. I felt so bad, because it was very cold. It was like freezing in there.

Miki Meek

Was it the freezer?

Mark Ginzo

Yeah. And they would put 15 or 20 of them in there and lock the door.

Miki Meek

And what is it that you're laughing about? What's making you laugh?

Mark Ginzo

Well, it was funny because management was the one that cooperated to hide them.

Miki Meek

Management would help hide them?

Mark Ginzo

Yeah.

Miki Meek

How? They would show people?

Mark Ginzo

Yeah. They would show people where the room-- and some would even hide in some of the management offices. Under the desks and closets-- anywhere we could hide them.

Miki Meek

Wow.

Mark Ginzo

I usually had four or five inside my office.

Miki Meek

This company, Hudson Foods, doesn't exist anymore. It was bought out. So we couldn't ask them to comment. But the INS agent who led the raid in Albertville, Bart Szafnicki, told me it was common for companies and all sorts of industries to hide workers. Sometimes it got ridiculous. He remembers a manager insisting he didn't have any undocumented workers, and then a guy fell through the ceiling and landed on his desk.

Bart pointed out, there's never been a serious crack down on employers. These raids were short lived. The fines were low. The chances of getting caught were small. Bart found it frustrating. Congress never had the political will to go after the companies that hire undocumented workers. There are congressmen who talk tough on immigration, but when INS went after work sites in their districts, they told them to back off.

Politically, it's always been easier to scapegoat the people who crossed the border than to go after employers. Martha and Pat's plant never got raided for whatever reason. But Martha told me some of their American coworkers took things into their own hands.

Miss Martha

I was on second shift. And we was sitting there one night. And they said, immigration is here. And that break room cleared out in this, shoom.

Miki Meek

So was immigration there or not really there?

Miss Martha

No, they wasn't there.

Miki Meek

So were they just messing with them to be mean?

Miss Martha

Yeah. It was just rumors. And you know who I'm talking about-- Wayne Gabel.

Miki Meek

Wayne Gable-- a maintenance worker now retired. He wasn't shy talking about this.

Wayne Gable

Somebody started the rumor out in the plant.

Miki Meek

Now, was that you?

Wayne Gable

Most likely.

Miki Meek

It was you.

Wayne Gable

Yeah. It was me.

Miki Meek

Why did you do that?

Wayne Gable

To see what would happen.

Miki Meek

It's kind of mean, right?

Wayne Gable

No, it was funny. The Hispanic people move fast when they have to, especially when they think immigration's coming.

Miss Martha

They was running on top of the building. They was running out the gate at the back of the plant. And by the time they finally got everybody settled down and told them it wasn't happening and all that, we done lost 20.

Miki Meek

People?

Miss Martha

That run, yeah. Because they was scared they was going to caught.

Miki Meek

Did they come back?

Miss Martha

No, no, no. They didn't come back, because they was afraid that--

Miki Meek

So they didn't come back the next day?

Miss Martha

No.

Miki Meek

Like 20 people were gone-- just gone?

Miss Martha

Right. And it's all because somebody told a lie. But we did get the three or four that was hiding on top of the roof. They did come back down. They let them go back on the line.

Miki Meek

Did you feel bad about it at all later?

Wayne Gable

No. Because the company kept saying they was there legally, and I knew better. I knew the company was lying. So I wanted to find out.

Miki Meek

And did you get in trouble?

Wayne Gable

Well, they carried me to the office, and we had a little conversation. They threatened me, told me not do that no more, that they would fire me. And I told them-- I says, yeah? And I'll have immigration in here, and I'll have a lawsuit on you when you do-- for me telling the truth. Because y'all are lying anyway. And that proved my point. And that proved the point to everybody in that plant. They was all there illegally.

Miki Meek

HR people who worked around Albertville at Tyson Foods, Wayne Farms, and Gold Kist, back in the mid '90s, told us that, sure, they suspected people were working under false papers. But they say, what could they do? Once an applicant presented documents proving they could work, the law limited them from probing and digging beyond that. Bruce Williams worked in HR at Wayne Farms back in the '90s.

Bruce Williams

And the law will tell you, you can go no further. You can't just set him in the chair and put the bright light on them-- you know, where did you get these papers? Where were you born? What color house was it? You can't do that stuff unless you do it to every single individual you hire.

Ira Glass

This is true. It goes back to President Reagan's 1986 Amnesty Law. That's the first time it became a crime in this country to knowingly hire somebody who should not be here. The key word in the law is knowingly. If a company knowingly hired somebody they shouldn't, that's when they got in trouble. But the law also said that if somebody's documents look legitimate, if they, quote, "appear to be genuine on their face, the employer must accept them and cannot question them or ask for more documentation." These are the rules that we still live under today.

And when the law was first passed, HR departments and companies all over the country were unprepared. They had no idea how to evaluate all the different forms of ID people were presenting-- birth certificates, and school records, and Native American tribal documents, and foreign passports with special work authorization stamps. They couldn't tell whether they seemed genuine on their face.

So in 1995, Congress, in a very practical, bipartisan way that we almost never see any more, decided that it had to fix the problem and come up with a simple way for employers to tell who is legal to work in the United States and who isn't, to figure out who they could hire.

Dianne Feinstein

There is simply no time to lose.

Ira Glass

Senator Dianne Feinstein warned, at the time, they had to solve this crisis now-- of immigrants coming in illegally and getting these jobs.

Dianne Feinstein

I fear an even more serious backlash nationwide against all immigrants, including those who want to come to our country legally.

Ira Glass

Obviously, they didn't solve it. And here we are today. A bipartisan commission called the Jordan Commission considered a bunch of solutions. One of the things they ended up proposing was a national computerized system to check people's IDs, and make sure they were valid, and their social security numbers are real. This is the system we've come to know as E-Verify.

The commission wanted it to be mandatory everywhere, but an almost laughably wide ranging coalition rose up against it. This was the ACLU, plus the NRA, plus church groups, plus business interests, plus La Raza. They all saw it as Big Brother government intrusion. So a voluntary program moved forward. A few of the poultry plants in Albertville voluntarily signed up for the pilot program of E-Verify in the late '90s. Tom Howell, at Wayne Farms, says they were the first.

Tom Howell

Because frankly, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And I had no way of knowing if somebody handed me a document, especially an alien card, whether or not it was legitimate or not. So I'll be honest with you, I didn't have a clue what I was looking for. And I was looking for any tool I could find.

Miki Meek

So how much better was E-Verify then? What's the difference that E-Verify made?

Tom Howell

To me, the big fallacy of it-- it would tell you that a document was valid, but it wouldn't tell you that the bearer of that document was actually the person that the document was for, if that makes any sense.

Miki Meek

What you're talking about is people using somebody else's papers.

Tom Howell

That's right. I mean, that was the fallacy of it, but it was the only thing available at the time. And we used it religiously.

Miki Meek

I mean, I have talked to workers who did used to work here who were up front about the fact. They were like, yeah. I came here, and I used a fake ID, and I worked here.

Tom Howell

Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that hasn't happened. But I can tell you that if we ever caught them, they weren't working here.

Miki Meek

Workers confirmed this. Inviting your boss to your quinceanera was not a good idea. But like Tom said, E-Verify couldn't detect when someone presented valid papers that actually had been issued to someone else. And so lots of people slipped through.

A study commissioned by the government in 2009 found that over half of undocumented workers with fake papers-- people E-Verify should have caught-- got a clean bill of health. What this means is that E-Verify worked out in a very convenient way for employers. They could simultaneously keep a huge illegal workforce while saying they were doing everything possible to root out that workforce. Pat says if she learned about someone who had a fake ID, sometimes she went to her supervisor and was told--

Pat

Everything on their paperwork checks out OK. What can we do? Her ID showed up good. Her ID showed up good.

Miki Meek

So by the early 2000s, you have all these undocumented workers not getting caught by E-Verify working in the Albertville plants, which raises the central question you come to when we talk about immigration-- did Americans end up out of work because of it? As Jeff Sessions puts it--

Jeff Sessions

You let a bunch of people come in from out of the country to take what few jobs there are, leaving Americans unemployed.

Miki Meek

Or as Martha says-- and by the way, she's a Democrat. Voted for Clinton.

Martha

You know, you need to hire Americans. You know, there are people out there that wants jobs. But there for many years, they just quit hiring Americans.

Ira Glass

So did these immigrants result in Americans out of work? To answer that, we turn to a labor economist who's made this kind of question his life's work, Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis.

Giovanni Peri

Hi, Ira. Hi, Miki. Nice to talk to you today.

Ira Glass

Peri did a study for us comparing the area around Albertville and counties in Alabama that had similar job markets but did not get a lot of immigrants. And it looked at the Americans most likely to lose their jobs to those immigrants, the ones competing against them for those poultry jobs. These are people who did not finish high school.

Ira Glass

Were more of them out of a job? Was their unemployment rate higher around Albertville?

Giovanni Peri

No. So we don't find here a significant difference in the unemployment rate between Albertville and the comparison counties.

Ira Glass

So even though a flood of immigrants came in, native-born workers were still finding jobs in equal numbers.

Giovanni Peri

Yes. Because the economy was becoming bigger. And these immigrants coming in in part were consumers. And so they created demand, also, for other jobs.

Ira Glass

In other words, so many people moved to Albertville-- remember, it's over 6,000 people who moved in. And they had to rent places to live and buy groceries and gas and other stuff in this little town. And the labor fueled the expansion of the poultry plants and all the businesses associated with poultry.

So even if fewer American workers were in the plants themselves, it created tons of work around town. And the numbers show the Americans found work elsewhere.

What's interesting is that all of that was invisible to the local workers in the plants. They didn't see the economy of the whole town. They didn't see the jobs being created everywhere. They saw what was right in front of them in the plant, which was immigrants getting hired there.

They weren't wrong about that. By the early 2000s, just 10 years after Latino workers first arrived in the plants, they dominated the workforce there. Whites were in the minority. Again, here's Martha.

Martha

Well, you know, you go out there, and you get on the line. And you're the only white person. And you got 25 Hispanics. And right across from you on that line is all Hispanics. You're standing right there by yourself.

Miki Meek

What was it like to suddenly be the minority in the plant?

Martha

Well, it wasn't that bad when they started. But after they'd been there a while, they kind of thought they owned it. And there was more of them. You know, they kind of stay with their group, the family, you know, like aunts and cousins. And just about all of them's kin somehow, you know? They started changing their attitude.

Miki Meek

What would come up?

Martha

It was hard to work with them. Because they were speaking their language and talk about people and make fun of them. And Americans know they was talking or laughing at them.

You know, and it started causing problems. We had quite a few fights in the breakrooms. Then we had them carried out to the parking lot, you know.

Miki Meek

Martha believes it's no accident that the workforce flipped like this. She believes the companies had a strong incentive to hire Latino workers rather than the locals. And the incentive was a big one. They didn't join the union, most of them anyway.

The two big Albertville plants, Tyson Foods and Wayne Farms, are union shops. Which is unusual for poultry and unusual in Alabama, which is a right-to-work state. Which means workers can opt out of the union and not pay dues.

Pat's a lifelong union member. Martha's chief steward at her plant. For years, the union had fought for better conditions and higher pay. And Pat and Martha's biggest frustration with her Latino coworkers is that they couldn't convince them to join.

Pat

They don't understand it. All they see is that $9.10 coming out of their check every week for union dues. And they don't want to pay it.

Martha

Because they don't want to spend that money. They've got to send it home.

Pat

The union could do awesome in a poultry plant if the Hispanics would unite and help us. I mean, we could rule the roost, you might say.

Miki Meek

Latino workers we talked to confirmed this. They didn't want to pay the extra money. They get the same salary and benefits regardless of whether they paid dues and joined the union. So why bother? The union president during the '90s, Joe Ellis, agrees with Martha that the companies were deliberately hiring Latino workers as a strategy to weaken the union.

Joe Ellis

Oh, there is no doubt-- I mean, I could tell you that there is no doubt. There's no doubt. I mean, the results show that. I mean, there is no doubt about it. I mean, we had membership at those plants at that time, probably, 80% to 90%, or even 95%.

Miki Meek

Mm-hmm.

Joe Ellis

And then when the Latinos come in, that changed. And when that changed, then the bargaining unit changed. Because we didn't have any bargaining power. So you were at their mercy.

Miki Meek

The union sent us records for 1991 that show membership at one of the plants, Wayne Farms, at 94.5%. Wayne Farms disputes this number, says membership has never been that high.

Today, the union says they're in the mid-40s at both union plants in town. The unions lost their 30-minute paid breaks. Raises are minimal.

Ira Glass

The companies-- Wayne Farms and Tyson Foods-- were adamant that they were not hiring Latino workers as a strategy to weaken the union. They said they didn't do anything to specially recruit Latino workers. And by the way, as long as we're on the subject, they said they did not put up a sign or signs on the border with Mexico.

They said what happened was simple. The population of people applying for jobs changed. And they hired whoever applied and was qualified.

Remember, these are plants with incredibly high turnover, always scrambling to hire people. And during the '90s, they got all their workers through the state employment office. It was the state employment office sending over the people to fill the jobs. And Latino applicants are who they sent. Bruce Williams was in HR during the '90s and 2000s at Wayne Farms.

Bruce Williams

OK. If your application flow-- the number of applications you get in-- say it's 60%, 70% Hispanic, over a period of time. What does that tell you your workforce is going look like? It's just-- it's just plain arithmetic. You know, 'cause I remember telling a couple of people, all right. I needed 10 people. I got 50 applications this week. They were all Hispanic.

Now who am I supposed to hire? Well, go out and find some white people. Well, why do you go find people? You've got people coming to you.

Ira Glass

Even if the Albertville plants never actively sought out or recruited Latino workers, it's important to note that it's been documented that poultry companies elsewhere did by sending scouts to Texas and Florida and running ads in Spanish-language newspapers and radio stations. Tyson Foods was indicted in 2001 by federal prosecutors for recruiting workers from outside the United States, from Mexico and Central America, and helping them get fake documents. The government lost that case when it failed to prove that this was a company-sanctioned practice, not just some rogue employees at a few of the plants.

Miki Meek

To be clear, the fact that so few local workers are in the plants today, Pat and Martha don't entirely blame the companies for that. Today, Pat no longer believes there was a sign on the border. They say it was a mixture of things.

Their peers started to retire out. And their kids don't work at the plant. More kids in town are graduating high school and have other options for work. And they said some locals just didn't want to come to work at a place that's mostly Latino.

But at the same time, they're convinced that there were periods where the companies did preferentially hire Latino workers, stretches where it really felt like locals couldn't get a job. They'd hear about locals putting in applications but taking a long time to get hired or not getting hired at all. And meanwhile, lots of Latino workers were coming through.

And fact is it really was harder for local workers to get a job than it had been in the past. Pat and Martha and other locals were right about that. Latino workers would line up at 2:00 in the morning for job applications. And by the time local workers showed up, the jobs would be taken.

And the companies got pickier. Plants added a three-strikes policy, and they tried to stick to it. That if you quit three times, they weren't going to hire you again. The old mirror-test days were over.

You could sum up the last quarter-century at the Albertville chicken plants this way. Chicken boomed, foreigners arrived, and wages didn't grow-- at least for Pat and Martha-- even though poultry companies made huge profits during the boom. Again, here's Pat.

Pat

You got to realize, I've been there 44 years-- this May, 44 years. And I'm just now making $11.95.

Miki Meek

You've been working there for more than 40 years, and you're at $11.95.

Pat

Mm-hmm.

Miki Meek

Have your wages kept up with your cost of living?

Pat

Lord, no. No. It's amazing, 40 years ago, I could go to the grocery store with $20 and buy groceries and feed a family of four.

Miki Meek

And what about now?

Pat

Now it takes $120 a week just to feed a family of three.

Ira Glass

She makes around $25,000 a year. If her wages had simply kept up with inflation, and she made the same thing as she did back when she started on August the 13th, 1973, she'd now be making $48,000 a year-- basically double. Also, back then, she says she didn't have to pay for her insurance. But now she does. And those costs go up every contract.

But how much of the stagnation in her wages is because of immigrants? The economist we talked to, Giovanni Peri, pointed out to us that it's not just Pat and her coworkers in Alabama who've taken this horrible hit to their wages.

Giovanni Peri

Not just their wages have stagnated in this period. The wage of low-skilled workers, they have a downward trend actually since 1980.

Ira Glass

This is all across America. And not just people without a high school education. It's about half the country whose wages have stayed flat or dropped when you account for inflation. The people without a high school degree like Pat have taken the worst of it. There's been a massive transfer of income to managers and shareholders and people at the top of the economic ladder thanks to automation, a low minimum wage, foreign trade with places like China, the decline of unions.

Nationally, the meatpacking unions have been losing power since the '60s. A few years back, a sociologist named Jackie Gabriel researched which came first in the meatpacking industry-- wage stagnation or immigrants. She found that it went like this. Back in the '60s, the meat industry restructured in ways that weakened the unions.

That led to pay cuts. And those pay cuts made the jobs way less attractive to American workers. And that paved the way for immigrants to come in and take those jobs. In other words, it wasn't immigrants that led to wage stagnation but the other way around.

But that still leaves a question. And that is, did the massive arrival of immigrants in the '90s and 2000s all over the country make it worse? After all, in Albertville, it was thousands of people. Did that push down Pat and Martha's wages?

Well, Giovanni Peri ran the numbers for us. Again, he compared Albertville to counties in Alabama with similar job markets that did not get lots of immigrants. And he found that after 20 years of immigrants pouring into the area around Albertville, the wages of people without a high school education did have a bigger drop than the counties without all those immigrants. Their wages were 7% lower, which works out to--

Giovanni Peri

$23 per week.

Ira Glass

$23 a week. That adds up to $1,200 per year, per worker. So it's real money.

When I showed this result to other economists, they said this was not surprising at all. This is usually what studies find. Though in most studies, the change is smaller than this. Most studies of people across the ideological spectrum find that when immigrants like this arrive, the effect on wages is not massive. In fact, it's pretty modest-- just a few percentage points or nothing at all.

But the people affected are the ones without a high school diploma. These studies show that everybody else in the economy, everyone who's graduated high school or more, either they see no change-- that's what happened in Albertville-- or they see a tiny improvement. The wages go up just a couple percentage points.

And the one group whose wages suffer, Americans without a high school diploma, that group is not much of the country. It's been shrinking for decades. It's just 10% of adults today.

This is why so many economists are always saying that immigration is good for the economy. Because overall, the economy gets a boost. And only 10% of wage earners take a hit. Which, of course, sounds great unless you're in that 10%, like Pat, who didn't graduate high school.

Miki Meek

We ran Peri's numbers by her-- his finding that her wages dropped $23 a week-- more than places in Alabama that didn't get all those immigrants. Giovanni Peri cautioned us that $23 a week is the very most the immigrants might have knocked down Pat's wages. There's a big margin of error in this study. So the number might be a lot less, which I told her.

Miki Meek

Worst case scenario, if all that were immigrants, if they cost you $23 a week, and they cost you $1,200 a year, what do you think about that?

Pat

Mm. Well, it kind of tisses me off a little bit that they costed me that. But wouldn't it have cost them the same thing?

Miki Meek

What you're saying is, if my wages went down, then didn't their wages go down too?

Pat

Didn't theirs go down too? But now, you cannot fault them. You cannot fault a person for wanting a job to feed their family. I don't care who you are.

Miki Meek

After all these years, it's hard not to notice that there's a symmetry in the lives of the old-time workers like Pat and the immigrants who arrived to work alongside them. Both groups never finished high school. Both groups used the chicken plants as a way to pull their families out of working in the fields. Both are incredibly proud that this is what let them buy a house, cars, send their kids to school, make sure they finished and didn't end up at the plants like them.

And they've both seen their real wages drop over the last 20 years. Carlos has been in the US since the late '70s and sounds very similar to Pat when he talks about this.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

The problem is that over the years, we've been getting raises of $0.25, $0.30, even $0.50.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

But at the same time insurance goes up. Taxes go up at the federal, local, and state level. And so when you take all of that out, the check stays the same.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

I'm paying more for food, more for the mechanic, and that's what makes my check go down.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

What we really need is an increase in our wages of $1.00 or $2.00.

Carlos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

And this brings us back to Jeff Sessions, senator and attorney general, who was the reason that we went to Albertville in the first place. When Sessions explains what he's trying to achieve by limiting immigration, he always talks about working people. He barely sounds like a Republican. Says our system's too biased towards corporations and capital formation and people at the top.

Jeff Sessions

And where is it hurting the most? It's the lower-income people. I mean, wages are down from 2000. They're down from 2007. People are hurting. And we need to focus more on the well-being of people who make lower wages-- $50,000 and below.

Ira Glass

Thing is, even if Sessions had managed to block immigrants from ever coming to Albertville in the first place, or if the administration that he serves figures out how to do that now, the main things in America driving down wages weren't immigrants at all.

[MUSIC - "WORKIN' WOMAN BLUES" BY VALERIE JUNE]

Next week on our show, we go into town to see what 6,000 newcomers cost taxpayers, and what it was like to have all these immigrants who'd never driven cars before suddenly on the roads not understanding what a stop sign is, and why a Latino business owner told his friend to run for mayor on the platform of kicking out all the immigrants.

Act 2

Pat

I have drawed chickens, hung chickens, dumped chickens, pushed dead chickens--

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week, with more stories about Albertville and This American Life.

[MUSIC - "WORKIN' WOMAN BLUES" BY VALERIE JUNE]

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