NEWS

Cargill now drawing Puerto Ricans to jobs in Beardstown

Adriana Colindres

BEARDSTOWN -- Drawn by a better-paying job, Andrea Agosto left her tropical home in Puerto Rico last summer and headed for Beardstown, a prairie city surrounded by cornfields and the Illinois River.

Agosto, who is 44 and divorced, had been working at a Starbucks in Puerto Rico, slicing ham and cheese for sandwiches. She earned $5.25 an hour.

So when officials from Cargill Meat Solutions began recruiting for employees in Puerto Rico last year, Agosto sought and obtained one of the positions. At Beardstown’s Cargill plant, she earns more than $12 an hour packing pork butts.

Agosto is one of dozens of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Beardstown since last summer to take jobs at the Cargill plant. Cargill has long hired immigrants at the plant, but until last year, most immigrants who worked for Cargill came from Mexico. An estimated one-third of Beardstown’s population of about 6,000 now is Hispanic, and local officials suspect a large proportion of area Hispanics came into the U.S. illegally.

Puerto Ricans also speak Spanish, of course. But there’s a difference: They’re also U.S. citizens.

Agosto says she came to Beardstown “looking for a better atmosphere, a better future and a better economy,” she said.

Agosto likes the better pay in Beardstown, as well as the tranquility of the town, though she misses some conveniences – Beardstown doesn’t have a movie theater, for instance. She also is annoyed by Beardstown’s crickets, which she says are larger and louder than the ones in Puerto Rico.

Mainly, however, she misses a son and daughter who remain in Puerto Rico. Agosto’s older daughter, 21-year-old Xiomara, lives with her and hopes to land a job at Cargill.

A spokesman for Cargill said company recruiters saw an opportunity to find workers in Puerto Rico because unemployment there is about 11 percent and a meat processing plant in Corozal had recently shut down, he said.

“We, from time to time, need to recruit outside the immediate area when the applicant flow is low,” said Mark Klein, spokesman for Cargill’s meat businesses. “When we do look outside the area, we research areas that may have high unemployment and/or meat processing.

“Those were the factors that led us to Puerto Rico. We also were pretty confident that our competitors hadn’t stumbled upon this opportunity.”

Cargill has hired roughly 50 employees from Puerto Rico for the Beardstown plant since July, he said.

Puerto Rico has an elected governor and controls its own internal governmental affairs, but President George Bush is the island’s head of state. The U.S. government handles certain matters, such as interstate trade and international relations.

The fact that people from Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens is significant, said Wilson Warren, an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo who has studied the meatpacking industry for more than 20 years.

A major issue in the industry over the past couple of decades has been that “so many of the people, especially from Mexico,” are undocumented workers, Warren said.

“The industry is under much more scrutiny than it has been, probably, since the late 1980s, since the last round of immigration reform. That’s, I’m sure, a huge reason for (recruiting workers there). Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, so you know, ‘Hey, let’s go there.’”

After a raid last spring, immigration authorities charged two employees of a company that had a contract to do cleaning work in Cargill’s Beardstown plant with knowingly hiring illegal aliens. The two both were sentenced to prison terms. More than 50 others arrested in the raid were accused of either identity theft or of being illegal aliens. None of those arrested worked for Cargill.

Klein downplayed the citizenship angle in Cargill’s Puerto Rican recruitment efforts.

“That was a benefit, but you still have to verify the employment eligibility and do the screening we do,” he said. Cargill utilizes a “rigorous process of verifying employment eligibility” for all its prospective hires, he said.

Klein said the 2,200-employee work force at the Beardstown plant is about 65 percent Caucasian, 25 percent Latino and 9 percent African.

But a scholar with expertise in immigration issues believes Cargill’s venture into the Puerto Rican labor force could be part of a trend. Certain types of industries, such as landscaping, construction and meatpacking, increasingly will turn there and to other U.S. territories for workers, said Elaine Lacy, professor of history at the University of South Carolina at Aiken.

“Now, with tightening regulations and the threat of federal legislation that’s going to make it very difficult to hire someone unless you’re absolutely, positively sure of their legal status, it’s quite likely that this will be the recourse they take,” Lacy said.

The Puerto Rican people who move to Beardstown arrive there with few possessions other than clothing, said Shelly Heideman, executive director of the Elizabeth Ann Seton Program, a non-profit group in Springfield. The organization, which has worked with immigrant families in Beardstown for more than five years, helps collect donations of furniture, winter clothing, towels and other items for the recently arrived families.

The Elizabeth Ann Seton Program also partners with Springfield-based Lincoln Land Community College to offer free English as a Second Language classes. Monthly educational sessions, called the “Beardstown Mom to Mom Ministry,” deal with topics such as parenting and poison control. The free sessions are offered in English and Spanish, and child care is provided.

In addition, she said, Beardstown’s more-established immigrant families -- many of them from Mexico -- lend a helping hand to the newer families.

“They’re such caring and giving people,” she said.

Maria Clayton, a Cargill employee originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, often assists the Puerto Ricans who arrive in Beardstown. She drives them to the plant and to the grocery store and offers them advice, telling them to work hard and not goof off.

“I help out everybody. It doesn’t have to be a Puerto Rican,” said the 50-year-old Clayton, who has lived in the Beardstown area for about 10 years with her husband, Paul, and their children. “I’ve been translating for Mexicans for 10 years. I translate for anybody who needs it.”

Not everybody adjusts to the differences between Puerto Rico and Beardstown, Clayton said.

“Some go back. I guess they’re homesick.”

Overall, though, she thinks bringing Puerto Rican workers to Beardstown has worked out well.

“I think in all this everybody benefits,” Clayton said. “The company benefits because it has employees it can count on. The Puerto Ricans benefit because they have a good job and they can go forward and do a better life with their better kids and stuff.”

Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292.