Low-wage Latino workers keep Sen. Gordon Smith’s family business humming. Not all of them are legal.
BY BETH SLOVIC | BSLOVIC AT WWEEK DOT COM
[September 10th, 2008]
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.”
...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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