An ICE agent escorts a worker in a Mississippi chicken-processing plant. Courtesy IcE

The fierce, majestic eagle is a popular symbol for organizations and movements, but let us pause and consider the potential symbolic value of the chicken.

I suggest the lowly chicken has a symbolic role to play in today’s political scene. As I see it, the chicken could serve as a surprisingly bold, defiant image in terms of addressing some of the issues involved in the current immigration debate.

How so the chicken? In case you haven’t noticed, Americans are beginning to eat less meat.  The rise of the “Flexitarian” diet (as opposed to vegetarian or vegan) reflects a desire to eliminate meat from several weekly meals in favor of plant-based products. Accordingly, I believe the timing is right to initiate a nationwide boycott of chicken products emanating from those chicken processing plants responsible for exploiting hard-working, undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrant employees.

The difficult plight of Mexican and Central American immigrants at the U.S. border has garnered many headlines during the past year. Adding to these headlines was the recent ICE arrest of over 600 undocumented immigrant employees, most of them Latinos, working in Mississippi chicken processing plants. This flaunting of government power brought momentary attention to the exploitation of these undocumented immigrants. Working in unsafe conditions—where repetitive hand motion leads to constant pain, and sharp knives result in cuts and exposure to deadly pathogens—these employees are encouraged to take on a dirty, demanding job that few Americans would accept, especially for such low pay and lack of benefits.

Curiously, not one employer was arrested as part of these raids. They were, in effect, given tacit approval to continue the human exploitation that generates corporate profits. The raids were less an efficient way to enforce the country’s laws, and more an exercise in taking the cruel, vindictive approach (instead of the empathetic one) to our refugee crisis.

These arrest headlines drew me back to memories of my recent teaching career. While teaching English at Olympian High School in Chula Vista, I took part in a theme-based academic program that required senior students to read a common book during the school year. The books selected each year for our so-called Common Senior Experience program focused on significant social issues/causes. They often highlighted courageous individuals who, in the process of advocating for solutions, demonstrated moral courage and progressive, out-of-the-box thinking.

Each book served to enlighten and inspire both Olympian Eagle students and myself.

However, two books, in particular, struck a lingering personal chord. The book Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, an account of young Central Americans risking the dangerous journey to the United States, along with Farm Sanctuary by Gene Baur, a book that details the inhumane way farm animals are treated by factory farms, left an indelible impression upon me. For example, I can’t help but look at today’s news reports of undocumented Central American immigrants being detained at the border without the empathy developed while reading and teaching Enrique’s Journey. Politicians and media personalities who insist on referring to this refugee crisis as an “invasion” might change their tune if they bothered to read the book. Moreover, after reading Farm Sanctuary and its explanation of how animals such as chickens, pigs and cows are raised for food in restrictive pens and cages for the entirety of their miserable lives, I immediately gave up the practice of eating meat. I can never again eat food raised in factory farms that torture sentient beings in the name of corporate profits.

The Trump administration’s treatment of Mexican and Central American immigrants and the inhumane treatment of farm animals may appear as totally disparate subjects, but I contend the convergence of these two issues can open our eyes to the benefits of employing a time-honored protest tactic, one that is actually mutually supportive of both causes.

A cleverly publicized boycott of chicken tied to protesting the treatment of these Latino processing plant employees (by both corporations and the government) could accomplish the following: raise awareness of the dangerous conditions immigrants work under at these processing plants; raise awareness of how the federal government hypocritically persecutes these employees; allow well-meaning citizens to demonstrate solidarity with immigrants striving for a better life; make a financial impact on the executives running the exploitative chicken processing plants; and, shed a light on the inhumane factory farm system that sources chickens for the processing plants.

Giving up chicken may sound like too drastic a move for many Americans of Latino descent; after all, chicken tamales, chicken mole, and chicken tacos are popular dishes. But perhaps the boycott campaign can be limited in nature for those unwilling to completely sacrifice their favorite food. The equivalent of a catchy alliterative Meatless Monday campaign—perhaps a Sin Pollo Sabado movement—could gain traction. This would certainly be in keeping with the “Flexitarian” diet trend. No need to go completely vegetarian or vegan.

The boycott has a proud tradition in Latino culture—think Cesar Chavez and his UFW lettuce boycott. Like that campaign, some form of nationwide chicken boycott would once again shed light on hard-working immigrants on this side of the border and perhaps change the immigration debate in a positive way.

Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.  

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