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September 10th, 2008 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

Señor Smith

Low-wage Latino workers keep Sen. Gordon Smith’s family business humming. Not all of them are legal.

     
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IMAGE: Steve Feldman

WESTON—Up on a hill overlooking this Eastern Oregon town of 701 people, Smith Frozen Foods turns raw produce from the surrounding fields into ready-to-eat products.

Smith’s goods appear in grocery stores under other brand names. But in tiny Weston, a water tank emblazoned with the capital letters S-M-I-T-H sits like a sentry greeting travelers on nearby Highway 11.

Gordon Smith, a United States senator from Oregon and the only Republican senator representing a West Coast state, has owned the plant his grandfather founded in 1919 for nearly 30 years.

“Son,” father Milan Smith once said, according to Gordon Smith’s 2006 memoir, “you can sell ice to Eskimos and coals to Newcastle.”

Today, Smith Frozen Foods generates millions in income for the senator, according to Smith’s 2007 financial disclosure report.

And in this town, Smith’s wealth looms large, even though the 56-year-old lawmaker seldom visits and calls nearby Pendleton his home. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Smith is the 12th-richest member of the U.S. Senate, with an estimated net worth between $8 million and $39 million—wealth that’s allowed him to buy a $3.5 million mansion in Bethesda, Md., property on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a Park City, Utah, condominium and—more famously—four antique golf clubs worth $1.25 million.

The workers at Smith Frozen Foods, who clean the machinery, monitor production and pack upward of 50 million pounds of produce each year, earn about $80 a day, four or five days a week, 10 months a year—if they’re lucky.

One other thing—some of them appear to be illegal immigrants.

WW recently spent several days in Weston, and the nearby cities of Milton-Freewater and Walla Walla, Wash., where most of Smith’s employees live. WW spoke to dozens of current and former Smith workers, Latino advocates, court personnel, public defenders, educators, police administrators, church officials, social service agents and business owners and determined that some portion of Smith’s workforce comprises undocumented immigrants.

It’s a revelation that may not be newsworthy around Weston, where most people this reporter interviewed knew, or assumed, that the agricultural processing plant hired illegal immigrants.

But it is news to Oregon’s Republican foot soldiers, the Smith loyalists currently knocking on doors and raising money to support the two-term incumbent’s upcoming election.

“His staff makes sure his employees are legal,” says Rick Hickey, vice chairman of the Marion County Republican Party and a member of the anti-illegal-immigrant group Oregonians for Immigration Reform. “He’s said it on the Lars Larson [KXL radio] show at least three times in the last year.”

Knowingly hiring undocumented workers is a violation of federal law. Perhaps most important, during a year when Smith is seeking re-election, it is at odds with the senator’s public statements on the explosive issue of illegal immigration.

“[W]e cannot continue to absorb the flow of illegal immigrants, many of whom benefit from government services that American citizens and companies provide,” Smith wrote in a letter to constituents dated Jan. 31, 2007. “Reform is necessary, and our borders must be tightened. Anyone who wants to come to live or work in the United States must abide by our laws while paying taxes and learning the English language.”

While it might be next to impossible to operate an agricultural business in today’s economy without depending on the work of undocumented immigrants, Smith’s situation puts him in a unique bind. He is a U.S. senator who voted against granting amnesty to the millions of illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. He has denied that his business employs illegal immigrants, but he has become rich, in part, on their backs. And he has leveraged that success in business into a seat in the U.S. Senate.

It’s not at all clear how Oregonians will respond to this news, says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that calls Smith’s race one of the most highly contested elections in the country.

“Democrats will make a very big deal of this,” Duffy says. “Let’s see how voters react.”

At its peak, when seasonal workers supplement its year-round workforce, Smith Frozen Foods employs nearly 500 men and women at its Weston plant. According to the workers themselves, roughly 85 percent of them are Latino. They’re from Michoacán, Sinaloa, Guanajuato and the Federal District in Mexico, as well as several other Mexican states, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Virtually all signs at Smith Frozen Foods read in English and Spanish, starting at the entrance:

Please shut the door when entering or exiting. Thank you.

Favor de cerrar la puerta cuando entra o salga. Gracias.

Checks are given at the window.

Los cheques se entrega por la ventanilla.

Smith Frozen Foods is wholly owned by the senator and his wife, Sharon Smith, the company’s chief economic officer, according to the company’s website. And while day-to-day operations are overseen by President Kelly Brown, the senator’s longtime friend and fellow Mormon church leader, Smith is in regular contact with Brown by phone, workers say. Sharon Smith continues to sign the company’s paychecks, and the couple’s son-in-law recently started working inside the plant, workers say.

In June 2007, Lars Larson asked Smith on his radio program if he ran his business without employing any illegal immigrants.

“Yes,” Smith responded. “Well, as I’ve told you, we go the extra mile to make sure we do.”

Smith went on to say the company recently had had to fire two employees at the plant after managers discovered they were not lawfully permitted to work in the country.

About a year earlier, Brown gave The Oregonian a slightly different account, that the company had recently fired about 12 people, not two, following an audit of the plant’s hiring practices by federal immigration authorities.

“[M]any times, employers and employees are tripped up by fraudulent people,” Smith told The Oregonian in the same May 2006 story. “When that is found out, there is a termination. We have been very diligent in following the letter of the law.”

But there is ample evidence to suggest that the hiring of illegal workers is a regular fact of life at Smith’s operation.

The evidence is, for the most part, secondhand. This reporter spoke to several employees of the Weston facility, none of whom admitted to being an illegal immigrant, though one woman was identified as such by another worker. And one 44-year-old worker at Garrett Packing, a company in Milton-Freewater that is also owned by the senator and supplements the work of Smith Frozen Foods, told WW he worked for Smith for nearly a decade with a fake green card.

Still, there is ample indirect evidence that Smith’s plant hires illegal immigrants and keeps them in the plant’s employ for many seasons.

Some of Smith’s own employees acknowledge that the workforce includes illegal immigrants. Liduvina Ibarra, who is lawfully permitted to work in the United States and was employed by Smith for four seasons, estimated that 50 percent of Smith’s workers were illegal, though she offered no proof. Others at the plant put the figure much lower, under one-third.

Frank Herrera runs a tax preparation service in nearby Walla Walla that serves Spanish-speaking residents. Herrera says in the past year he has helped more than five Smith employees who didn’t have Social Security numbers file their tax returns. Because they were illegal immigrants, they filed their taxes with what are called Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, which are available only to people ineligible for Social Security numbers.

“That’s just a fact of life,” Herrera says of Smith’s hiring undocumented workers. “There’s no question.”

One member of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Walla Walla, who declined to be identified, says she knows at least one fellow church member who is undocumented and currently works at Smith Frozen Foods.

Gail Siemers, a lawyer in Walla Walla, says she represents workers from Smith Frozen Foods arrested on criminal charges outside of work. When they’re booked in jail, prison officials check their immigration status, and in that way Siemers often learns her clients are undocumented workers. One illegal immigrant, Antonio Mendez Jr., who worked at Smith for several seasons, was in the Walla Walla County Jail on Monday on harassment charges and awaiting possible deportation. “When it’s going full bore, over 70 percent of the workers on the line [at Smith] are undocumented,” Siemers estimated.

A representative of Teamsters Local 839 out of Pasco, Wash., which represents Smith’s employees, declined comment when asked whether he knew Smith’s plant employed undocumented immigrants. (A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declared labor organizations are permitted to represent illegal workers.) “That’s one of those questions I really can’t respond to,” says Bob Hawks, secretary-treasurer of the union.

Additional interviews and review of public records reveal that Smith’s company appears to have employed illegal immigrants for decades, stretching back as far as the 1980s.

According to a May 23, 1988, memo from the U.S. Department of Justice obtained by WW, Bob Cortinas, who was then Smith’s personnel director, told federal investigators he was instructed by Smith’s legal department not to photocopy workers’ documents “so that it would make it harder for [immigration officials] to find errors.”

In 1995, police records from Walla Walla County show two Smith employees who were arrested for burglary were found to have been illegal immigrants: Jose Manuel Espinosa and Antonio Ortiz Rosales.

Paul Apostolidis, a political science professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla who specializes in Latino affairs and labor studies, says that in the early 2000s, “according to what union organizers told me, there were plenty of undocumented workers at Smith.”

None of this surprises longtime residents.

“Historically, most of the employers around here don’t look too carefully at documents,” says Jodi Lindquist, a manager of the Walla Walla Farm Labor Homes, a publicly supported housing development where some of Smith’s workers live. “I can’t imagine that all of his employees are legal.”

At the same time, Smith Frozen Foods has never been fined for employing illegal immigrants.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Smith has repeatedly stated that his managers vigorously examine employees’ immigration documents and work-authorization papers. His company’s employment application asks workers to certify they are legally eligible to work in the United States by asking them to check a box that affirms their legal status.

“When we screen an applicant, we do it according to the I-9 procedure,” Brown says, meaning the company asks employees to show managers documents such as Social Security cards, passports, green cards and birth certificates.

An 11-year-old federal program called E-verify allows companies to check instantly whether Social Security numbers match prospective employees’ names and whether other immigration documents granting them the right to work are valid.

Smith Frozen Foods chooses not to use this program. “We tried it in the past, and we were not very happy with it,” Brown says of E-verify, which is used by 80,000 companies in the United States. “It doesn’t work very well.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement defended the free, voluntary program. “If an employer uses E-verify and they encounter errors, there are steps in place to address that,” says ICE spokeswoman Lorie Dankers. A representative for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services added that E-verify results in errors less than 1 percent of the time.

In some respects, it is both astonishing that a United States senator would own a company that hires undocumented workers and, given the nature of the agricultural industry, not entirely surprising. Farming and food processing often depend on illegal immigrants to perform work that is poorly paid, often under conditions that are less than ideal.

Outside the plant on a recent August afternoon, several Latino workers from Smith joked to this reporter that new white workers rarely last at Smith.

Much of the work pays about $8 an hour. It is irregular; workers don’t know from one week to the next how many hours they’ll be needed at the plant. If there’s too much rain, farmers can’t harvest their fields and there’s not enough work. If the corn’s not ready to be picked, it’s also not ready to be bagged.

Workers dare not seek a second job, many of them said. They can be fired if on more than one occasion they’re not available to work when they’re called to duty.

And only year-round employees, about a third of the overall Smith workforce, are offered health insurance.

On top of that, Smith Frozen Foods manages its employees with a point system workers characterize as demeaning, handing out tickets for infractions large and small, everything from arriving a few minutes late to failing to obtain a doctor’s note to explain an absence due to a sick child. Some infractions earn a worker one demerit. Others, more. Ten points in one year and you’re out.

Lucia Avalos, 53, says she started working for Smith Frozen Foods in 1979 when she was an illegal immigrant, newly arrived from Michoacán, Mexico.

In 1986 she earned amnesty. Today she is a citizen. And for 24 years, after a three-year break, she worked at Smith and saw her salary rise to $8.80 an hour. But just before her 25th year at the company, she was fired. On April 24, 2007, a supervisor said she’d falsified a doctor’s note excusing her from work for a few days, although to this day Avalos contends it was the hospital that made the error. More than a year after the firing, unable to get another job in part due to her severely limited English, Avalos is still angry. “A los empleados, no los tratan como seres humanos, ” Avalos says. (“Their workers, they don’t treat them like humans.”)

The roster of politicians undone by revelations of hiring illegal workers is long—and bipartisan. Zoë Baird, President Bill Clinton’s nominee for attorney general in 1993, was deemed unfit for government service after allegations surfaced she had hired illegal immigrants and failed to pay required federal withholding taxes. Kimba Wood, Clinton’s second nominee, withdrew her name from consideration under a similar cloud. More recently, Bernard Kerik, President George W. Bush’s 2004 pick to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, declined the federal post after questions arose about his hiring of an illegal nanny and housekeeper.

None of those candidates faced voters, however. And none of those candidates ran businesses using illegal workers, a situation Oregonians might consider differently.

“The argument is that these people are taking jobs away,” Duffy of The Cook Political Report says. “At the same time, they wouldn’t have been hired if documented workers in fact applied for the jobs. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. People can get mad about it in theory. Yet a lot of them aren’t willing to do these jobs. I think that Democrats will certainly make a big deal of it.”

The senator’s Oregon political director, Kerry Tymchuk, referred questions to Smith’s spokesman in Washington, D.C., Luke Kintigh. Kintigh, in turn, referred questions to managers at Smith Frozen Foods.

On Aug. 14, Smith told WW: “We need to support legal immigration and not incentivize illegal immigration.” A year earlier he told KXL’s Lars Larson his company goes “the extra mile” to make sure it doesn’t hire any illegal immigrants.

Yet Smith Frozen Foods president Kelly Brown appears less certain. Asked if the company employed illegal immigrants, Brown said: “I don’t know. It’s one of those things where we do the best we can do and we go forward.”

Inside Smith Frozen Foods' Weston facility.


Video courtesy Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division.
Joint Council 37, which includes Teamsters Local 839, the union representing workers at Smith Frozen Foods, endorsed Democratic nominee Jeff Merkley in the 2008 U.S. Senate race.

Smith’s other businesses include Brittany Farming and Garrett Packing, named for two of his three children.

In the early 1990s, Smith Frozen Foods processed 10 to 15 percent of all frozen peas, corn and diced carrots in the United States, Smith writes in his book Remembering Garrett.

Knowingly hiring illegal immigrants can be a criminal offense. Two supervisors of a Postville, Iowa, meatpacking plant are facing criminal charges in connection with a May 12, 2008, federal immigration raid that resulted in the arrest of 389 undocumented workers.

Smith voted for S. 2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, on May 25, 2006. After it failed to become law, Smith voted to kill S. 1639, an updated version of the measure, on June 28, 2007, after a flood of callers opposing the bill’s amnesty provision temporarily knocked out telephone service at his office.

On July 29, Smith Frozen Foods violated state environmental regulations by letting wastewater from its plant leak into nearby Pine Creek. No fine has been issued.

On Aug. 19, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division fined Smith Frozen Foods a proposed $1,900 for violations ranging from a missing guardrail to unsafe machinery.

 
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