August 5, 2006


Hola, Delaware!: How Guatemalan immigrants changed a small American town. (Christopher Caldwell, 08/14/2006, Weekly Standard)

Sitting at a desk in a tiny cabin at the front of the used-car lot he runs, Mike Wyatt, the mayor of Georgetown, says the town really didn't have any idea what was happening to it until it had become a different place altogether. "The demographics started changing in the early 1990s," he recalls, "but people didn't wake up to it until about 1997. Back then, everybody hated them. Today, I would say that 85 percent understand them."

"When they arrived, they were the sorriest looking people you ever saw in your life," says Carlton Moore, a real estate developer who works on projects in Kimmeytown. "But they were always willing to work."

Local farms are heavily manned by immigrant labor, most of it seasonal. The first Latinos recruited to Delaware may have been Mexicans hired at the border in the late 1980s under H2B visas, by the now-defunct Draper King Cole canning company and others. But it is the chicken-processing industry that people think of when they think of Delaware Hispanics. The processing of poultry is the objective correlative of those "jobs Americans won't do" that we hear so much about whenever illegal immigration is discussed. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the percentage of meat-processing workers who are Latino increased from under 10 percent to almost 30 percent in the last two decades of the twentieth century. It is very easy to see how the chicken industry around Georgetown became, by industry estimates, 85 percent Hispanic.

There are two big chicken-processing companies headquartered in Delaware: Mountaire (in Selbyville) and Allen (in Seaford). Perdue, which has its main office just across the state line in Salisbury, Maryland, and Arkansas-based Tyson's also have large-scale operations here. Contrary to popular caricature, this is not the chicken capital of the country--Delaware ranks only seventh in broiler production, according to the National Chicken Council. But it was here that the "broiler industry"--a broiler is a young chicken bred for eating, not laying--developed before the Second World War. And Delmarva is probably the place where the rest of the local economy is most interlinked with, and dependent on, chicken. Delaware has gone in recent decades from an agricultural economy based on truck farming to one based on two crops: feed corn and soy. These are ancillary to the local chicken industry. Since the soil on the peninsula is good but not great, Delaware soy and corn are not price-competitive against those grown elsewhere in the United States. They can be grown for a profit only because they can reach one particular consumer--the chicken processors--at next to no transportation cost. As the broiler goes, so goes the entire economy of the southern inland of the state.

Every day, at the Perdue plant a quarter-mile east of Kimmeytown, almost 100 container trucks full of birds are turned into Oven Stuffer Roasters. There are three shifts. One runs from 5 in the morning until early afternoon, another starts then and runs till around 9:30 at night (the length of the shift varies according to the size of the "kill"), at which point the sanitation shift comes in and scrubs the plant down until morning.

Why is there such a desperate need for foreigners to do this work? It is not that workforces have grown. True, since 1960, the consumption of broilers has roughly quadrupled (while the consumption of both beef and pork has fallen slightly). But this spike in demand has been met by mechanization. At 6,000-7,000, the number of food production workers in this part of Delmarva is probably slightly lower than it used to be.

At most chicken plants, there is still a lot of manual work. There are groups of eight or ten men in chain-mail aprons removing breasts with super-sharp knives. For roasting chickens, there is a guy who pumps plastic thermometers into the birds with a thermometer gun (an innovation of the last five years); vacuum-packed whole birds still have their leg joints cracked and folded by hand. But what present-day chicken workers mostly do is back up machines, catching the 2 percent to 3 percent of birds that the vacuums and cleansers and rotating blades don't do a thorough job on. Thus, at a modern plant, you can now run 105 birds a minute on two evisceration lines using eight or ten people. In 1980, to manage 70 birds a minute, you would have needed 35 to 40. "We used to have a whole army out there," says one manager who has worked in Delaware poultry for decades.

With a lot of slippery floors and fast-moving knives, it can be dangerous work--but it is not particularly dangerous by manufacturing standards. All the Delmarva poultry companies routinely rack up millions of consecutive hours without a workplace accident, and hold company picnics and parties to celebrate when they do. Workers are constantly shifted between different tasks to reduce muscle strain and the kind of boredom that can cause mishaps. Nor are workers ripped off. At Perdue, for example, the hourly pay starts at $9.70, rising to $10.20 for a "line leader." Benefits vary from company to company, but Perdue contributes to 401(k) programs for its workers and offers ten-dollar doctor's visits for all employees who request them.

But in general, chicken processing is tough work. Parts of any plant are unpleasantly hot, like the gate where the new birds come in to be hung by the legs from shackles, stunned in an electrical bath, and decapitated. Other parts are unpleasantly cold, like the dank and rather Gothic-looking cooling room, where it is always 36 and workers run through billows of steam in their turtlenecks and down vests. It is loud with the banging of carcasses on metal as they're dropped into the chill vat, and it's wet with the constant washing and sluicing that is going on.

The problem for poultry processors has been retention. Today, the companies have 3 percent monthly turnover in their workforce. This is a sea change. Two decades ago, a plant would lose 10 to 15 percent of its workers per month--that is, at any given moment, most of the workers in a plant would have been hired in the past four or five months. This is how immigrants wound up dominating the poultry industry. It is not that corporations sought to unload their local workers wholesale and replace them with cheaper and harder-working ones. It is that every time a local worker quit, he was replaced by a Guatemalan who didn't, and the job changed from a stopgap into the lifeline for a family.

Complicating this adjustment is that Delaware is not just a land of old industries. The general trajectory of immigrants in Delaware is from the industrial economy, which does not require English, into the service economy (mostly landscaping, construction, and restaurant work), which does. The service industries are highly developed on the coast, just ten miles away. There, a boom in real estate, retail, and restaurants is changing life in Sussex County more than immigration. The median age in most states, including Delaware, is 36 or 37. In Sussex County, it is creeping towards the mid-40s. New development, the tendency of people to retire to summer houses, youth flight, and a state tax code with a generous "pension exclusion" are all turning Sussex into what real-estate agents refer to as a NORC, a "naturally occurring retirement community."

In such places, it is easy to understate the demand for immigration by mixing up "workforce participation" and "employment." Why, many people ask, does southern Delaware need immigrants when its unemployment rate is in low single digits? The answer is that even in communities made up disproportionately of retirees, there's still work to be done. In Rehoboth and Fenwick, the retirees are not "unemployed," but they're not paving the roads they drive on or cutting their own grass, either.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 5, 2006 10:06 AM

A success story by anybody's standards. It would be fun to follow a couple of families as they progress through the next generation and see where their kids end up and then their grandkids. Not plucking chickens, I'd guess.

Posted by: erp at August 5, 2006 12:25 PM

Current U.S. unemployment rate: 4.8%. For Blacks: 9.5%. For Hispanics: 5.2%. Curious.

Posted by: ghostcat at August 5, 2006 8:19 PM

If it's still true that unemployment statistics only measure those actively looking for work, why would twice the number of Blacks than Whites be unable to find a job? I wonder about these numbers.

Around here the job market is so tight there are electronic billboards flashing tel. nos. along county roads asking people to call for job information.

Posted by: erp at August 6, 2006 12:10 PM