Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Whitewater - Day 3, Part 2 (Tuesday p.m.)

“Where are the workers?” asks Maria.

“There are no workers” is the reply as we walk into the eerily silent Star Packaging factory in Whitewater.

It is a vivid, shocking and saddening example of the inadequacy of the system. The Star Packaging facotry was the site of an immigration raid in August 2006, where Luz, one of our travelers and a featured panelist was employed. We pay a visit after the panel. It is 1:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. Normally first shift would be in full swing, with about 80 employees busy at work, machines buzzing and clinking. Now there is no one. Overnight the plant went from 100 employees to nine. The machines are still. All we can hear is the slight hum of a generator. The warehouse is empty. All we can see are yellow lines where boxes should have been.

Star packaging is bankrupting. The employees are gone, the once robust revenues have gone to court fees because the owner too is being indicted for hiring undocumented workers. He could have made a settlement and admitted that he had done wrong by hiring these workers, but he did not. Our guide tells us that the family is surviving on retirement money. “This has ruined our lives” she says.

The loss for the workers, those awaiting deportation is obvious. But the devastation of the raid does not stop with those directly impacted. Whitewater is a small town and Star Packaging is a small business supporting the local economy. As a leading employee and an active community member, one has to wonder what is the economic loss to the city to the people of Whitewater? The factory owner gave to charities and supported events. The workers in the factory shopped at the stores, went to the restaurants, rented their homes. They were not criminals, they were not robbing, they were simply working and buying and living – perfectly in sync with the American way. The factory owner fears they will have to sell, 25 years of work gone, and seek a new beginning. No longer can he contribute to the local charities, sponsor local events or be an active member of the community. He is too busy fighting imprisonment for the crime of employing people who needed jobs. He is running bankrupt struggling for his own freedom.

The family is livid. Star Packaging was at one time a large financial contributor to community groups and events. His daughter tells us with a grimace of disgust, that the raid and the public knowledge of their legal battle, does not stop the local police from having the audacity to call from time to time seeking donations.

What will happen when all the factories close? What will happen to a town like Whitewater when one by one the factories that line the outskirts of town shut down and move away because their workers are scared, their employers live in fear and there is no one left to do the work? What will happen if all the workers are detained and all the employers thrown in jail? What will happen to the restaurants these people used to go to, the stores they used to shop at? The factory is dead, a ghost town. Will the rest of the town follow suit?

The devastation caused by this raid is visually apparent. Far less clear is who benefited from this “victory” in the immigration fight? Who were the winners in this? I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I still can’t find an answer.

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