From the inception of the federal Refugee Admissions Program in 1980 until 2003, the first year of Phil Bredesen’s first term as governor of Tennessee, only a handful of Somali refugees were resettled in Tennessee by the federal government.
That all changed in 2003.
Between 2003 and 2011, Bredesen’s last year as governor, 1,866 Somali refugees were resettled in Tennessee by federal resettlement contractors. During that same time period over 9,000 refugees of multiple ethnicities were brought to Tennessee by federal contractors. The numbers do not, however, account for secondary migrants who are first resettled in other states or other parts of Tennessee but then relocate to follow friends, relatives or jobs and join the growing ethnic enclaves in a different location.
“[T]he simple action of offering hundreds of job openings at the local chicken processing plant” according to former Shelbyville Times-Gazette reporter Brian Mosely, explains in part, what drew Somali refugees to his hometown. Increasing the supply of Somalis and other refugee workers was facilitated by then governor Phil Bredesen’s treatment of Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program.
In 2007, Mosely wrote a five-part, award-winning series about the arrival of Somalis to Shelbyville. One of the stories connecting Somalis to the town’s Tyson Foods plant puts their arrival date somewhere around 2003, according to Tyson’s spokesman Gary Mickelson in Mosely’s article.
Mickelson also said that “out of the 1,100 Team Members Tyson employs in Bedford County, just over one-quarter of them are Somali.”
Mosely’s research found that “most, if not all of the Somalis in Shelbyville appear to be employed at the local Tyson chicken processing plant.”
During a 2008 interview, Mosely explained in greater detail how “the simple action of offering hundreds of job openings at the local chicken processing plant” helped attract Somalis to Shelbyville even though Bedford County and Shelbyville were not designated direct resettlement sites:
However, to understand this local labor need, you have to know a bit of history involving the [Tyson Foods] company and the area. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the Hispanic population in Bedford County has exploded to 12.5 percent, the highest per capita in Tennessee. Many of these immigrants came here in the 1990’s to either work in the Tyson facility, or else take up jobs in agriculture or the Walking Horse industry, which dominates this county and the surrounding region.
In 2001, the Tyson plant here in Shelbyville was one of several across the country that were caught up in a federal investigation alleging that executives and managers of Tyson were involved in a conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens to their foods processing facilities.
Two local managers pled guilty, one took his own life and the rest were acquitted in federal court when the case finally came to trial. But it was soon after the Tyson trial that locals began to notice the Somalis moving into the area. Many living here, including some employed at the plant, have claimed that the company was replacing the Hispanics with Somalis, since they can guarantee they are in the country legally.
According to Tyson representatives, the case-ready meats plant in Goodlettsville, TN [near Nashville] had finished staffing their second shift and began telling applicants of other job opportunities in the company, which included positions here in Shelbyville. Tyson claims that the Somalis applied for employment through one of the area Job Service offices and learned about the jobs primarily through word-of-mouth.
Midway through his two terms as governor Bredesen withdrew the state of Tennessee from the federal refugee resettlement program. In his letter to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) he suggested that “refugee-specific service providers” could better meet the needs of arriving refugees.
Bredesen’s withdrawal of Tennessee from the refugee program created the opportunity for the ORR to hand over the running the state’s program to Catholic Charities of Tennessee. The first full year that Catholic Charities was operating the program state-wide, refugee arrivals to Tennessee increased by approximately 66% despite refugee arrivals declining on a national level.
It is not known whether Bredesen was aware that increasing the number of refugees would result in more taxpayer funding flowing to the federal refugee contractors. A 2012 U.S. General Accounting Office report confirmed that because of the per refugee payment structure, resettlement contractors are incentivized “to maintain or increase the number of refugees they resettle each year rather than allowing the number to decrease.”
At the start of his first term as Mayor of Nashville in 1992, Bredesen signed an Executive Order which suggests that his administration sought out and developed a working relationship with the refugee agencies. Executive Order No.92-04 created “[a] new Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Refugee and Immigration Affairs” and invited each resettlement agency including Catholic Charities to provide a representative to serve on his new committee.
Now campaigning as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Bredesen is applauding the expansion of Tyson Foods in Tennessee. After attending the ground-breaking ceremony for the new plant in Humboldt, Bredesen’s Facebook post took credit for helping to bring companies like Tyson Foods to Tennessee.
The Humboldt Tyson Foods plant is mired in controversy.
As The Tennessee Star reported, no public hearings were held on the impact the new plant will have on the local educational and social services system prior to the announcement of the deal. In addition the $18 million grant given to encourage Tyson Foods, a company with $38 billion in revenue in 2017, to come to Humboldt slipped through this year’s session of the Tennessee General Assembly without comment or public discussion.
Finally, last month, State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, wrote Attorney General Herbert Slatery asking for a review of the the local governments’ authority to regulate the industrial-sized chicken farms in light of the anticipated increase in supply that will be required with the new Humboldt plant. Fitzhugh has raised concerns related to state legislation loosening some of the regulations that apply to chicken farms and their potential impact on the environment.
After the public announcement of the new plant, The Star asked Tyson Foods and Gibson County if any guarantees had been given that none of the new employees hired at the plant would be refugees, but neither Tyson Foods nor Gibson County indicated that any such guarantee had been provided.
Tyson Foods is a “big chicken” employer of refugees, a fact well-known among communities looking for jobs with benefits that do not require being able to speak English and where religious accommodations such as prayer breaks, are provided. Other small rural towns such as Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Columbus Junction, Iowa and Noel, Missouri have experienced the transforming effect of a Tysons operation.
Christopher Leonard, a former reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and author of the The Meat Racket, disputes the long-term economic prosperity forecasted by those celebrating the arrival of Tyson Foods in Humboldt. Leonard argues that “big meat” like Tyson Foods which is vertically-integrated so that they control every aspect of poultry production from growing the chicks to distributing the end product, “crush local economies” of small rural towns.
Tyson Foods has responded to Leonard’s allegations about the industrialization of meat production.