Monday, January 8, 2018

On Puerto Rican migration into rural South Dakota

The Washington Post reported last week on a South Dakota poultry producer's recruitment of labor from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, noting that it is part of a "new answer in their ever-evolving struggle to find workers who would perform lower-rung American jobs." The story, by Chico Harlan, is datelined Huron, South Dakota, population 12,592.  The story begins with a vignette of weather shock and a hint of culture shock:
The airport terminal doors slid open and out came 22 people from Puerto Rico, walking a few weeks ago into the whipping South Dakota wind, not quite ready for what was ahead. One person still wore shorts. Another zipped up a hoodie. The group climbed into three waiting vans. 
“You guys good?” asked one of the drivers who would be taking them to their new home. “Does anybody speak English?” 
“No,” one person said, and the driver let the van go silent before turning up some country music. 
Through the windows, there were miles of emptiness, and Gretchen Velez, 21, looked at the others in the van and was quiet. She’d started the day on an island that was desperately short on electricity and clean water and jobs because of Hurricane Maria. Now, 10 hours later, she was in South Dakota — a place she knew almost nothing about, other than what a job recruiter had told her, that he had a position for her at a turkey processing plant in a rural town nearly 3,000 miles away.
Before Hurricane Maria, Velez was a college student. But when the hurricane hit, her classes were canceled and she lost her job due to the infrastructure and economic conditions on the island.

As for Dakota Provisions, her new employer, it introduces itself on its website thusly:
Dakota Provisions is a state-of-the-art turkey processing plant that produces homegrown, world-class products. Dakota Provisions manufactures and produces poultry and protein products that are specially designed for retail and food service partners. Located just east of the James River, Dakota Provisions was founded by a co-op of growers, most of whom are members of Hutterite communities.
Journalist Harlan explains that its been operating for some dozen years and a thousand people work there, making it one of the largest employers in the state.

Harlan puts what is happening at Dakota Provisions in wider economic and labor market context--particularly as it relates to immigration in rural locales.
[Dakota Provisions] transformed the character of Huron: The starting-level jobs — breast-pullers, carcass-loaders, bird-hangers — rarely attracted anyone from the local workforce, so instead the plant filled with people from all over the world. Soon, a town that had been 97 percent white had four Asian grocery stores and a school district where half the students were learning English as a second language, and at the center of it was a plant in constant need of workers — people who would be ready every morning as trucks dropped off 19,000 live turkeys that would be killed, deboned, sectioned and sliced, and wrapped for restaurants and grocery stores. 
Later Harlan notes:
Only a handful seemed to be local. The people hanging the birds were from Burma. Some of the people trimming the breasts were from Puerto Rico. Deeper in the factory, cutting skin, removing organs, there were people from Cuba and Guatemala and Vietnam. More than a dozen were from Chuuk, an island chain in Micronesia.
As for Velez, she says she hopes eventually to get back to Puerto Rico, but for now Huron, South Dakota and Dakota Provisions represent opportunity.  I felt empathy and sympathy for Velez as I read the story, but as I ponder the extremely difficult work she is doing for $10/hour, I find myself hoping Velez makes it home to Puerto Rico or can otherwise continue her education. 

My academic article about immigration into rural locales of non-gateway states is here.  I have written another post based largely on this same WaPo story for my new White Working Class and the Law Blog, for a class that kicks off Thursday.   That post springboards from this line of the story:  "ever-evolving struggle to find workers who would perform lower-rung American jobs."

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