What do a meat packing plant in Cactus, Texas, a $107 million school bond and immigrants from Guatemala all have in common?

On a recent drive back from Dallas, I caught the broadcast of a curious story on NPR radio about the little town of Cactus in the Texas panhandle. Cactus has a population of about 3,200 people. It is in Moore County and the county seat is Dumas, which may be more likely to ring a bell with people.

Over about the past year, enrollment at the Cactus Elementary School has dramatically increased from 300 to 400 children, with most of the new students coming from Guatemala. Why are these kids here? The good wages at the JBS Cactus Beef Plant attract their parents, who are recent immigrants fleeing the increasing violence and poverty of Central America. The JBS Cactus Beef Plant is one of the largest meat processing plants in the US. It has a workforce of over 3,000, and that workforce is largely made up of immigrants. Some of the positions pay $15-20 an hour.

Despite this, JBS still has a whopping turnover rate of 70%. The work is hard, fast-paced and dangerous. A single cutter may process 100 carcasses per hour. Meat processing plants are notorious for having difficult working conditions. It is one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. So while most U.S. citizens will look elsewhere for a job with better working conditions, these jobs are attractive to low-skilled immigrants. The company also offers language classes, medical benefits and subsidized housing.

Moore County used to be predominantly white, and Dumas was a “sundown” town. Today the county is 80% non-white, mainly because of the draw of jobs not only at the JBS plant but also in the surrounding feed lots, ranches, etc. The immigrants come from Central America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, etc. The town has a mosque and a halal meat market.

On Nov. 5, 2019, U.S. citizens within the Dumas Independent School District, which includes Cactus, voted to approve a $107 million school bond project. The bond includes a brand-new elementary school for Cactus. The bond passed by a very slim 20-vote margin with 1,189 voting for and 1,169 voting against. The county is heavily Republican. In 2016, Donald Trump won Moore County by 75%.

This story presents a number of interesting points regarding the complicated intersections of immigration, education, employment, politics, etc. One could argue that these immigrants are a good thing, as they fill positions that U.S. citizens do not want and keep the final price of the meat more affordable. But the immigrants bring change that perhaps not all locals will welcome. Or one could argue that the meat packing plant should make the jobs more attractive to U.S. citizens by slowing production, implementing better safety measures, increasing wages, and so on. But that would likely lead to consumers having to pay a higher price for the meat. However, I think that the passage of a $107 million school bond by only 20 votes is a clear indicator that every vote counts!

If you would like to know the full details, the radio segment is also available as an article — “Unskilled Jobs Draw Migrants, Changing Face Of Small Towns Across America” — online at the NPR website. As a side note, I would encourage you to read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which is about the poor working conditions in meat processing plants in Chicago during the early 1900s. The copyright on the book has expired, so it is available online for free as both an ebook and an audiobook.

Alice Gruber has been practicing U.S. immigration and naturalization law since 1995. Since 2007, she has practiced in Cooke County for a range of small to medium-sized corporate clients nationwide, quarter horse ranches in Texas and individuals. If you’d like to suggest a specific immigration topic for a future column, email alice@alicegruber.com.

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