The JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, Minn. is one of the largest employers and has long drawn immigrants and refugees to this southwestern Minnesota town. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer
Immigrant communities in Worthington leaned on experiences responding to ICE raids years earlier to inform early COVID-19 response and relief plans, according to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute.
As the pandemic continues and new viral hazards develop, like monkeypox, the report analyzed the experience of two cities’ — Worthington and Houston, Texas — to look for ideas about how to respond to future viral and economic threats.
Worthington, a city of 13,000 with a large immigrant population, was an early epicenter of the pandemic, with outbreaks in March 2020 at the JBS pork processing plant there. The facility closed for two weeks in April 2020 after the virus spread rapidly among workers. Immigrant communities, drawn to the meatpacking plant for decades, often felt the brunt of the disease.
Despite early outbreaks, 87% of the workers at the plant were vaccinated by June of 2021 and rates of infection in Nobles County have slowed.
The report said faith-based and other community organizations played a major role in reaching immigrant communities for COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution by serving as a trusted voice and support system.
When the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided and arrested over 200 employees at JBS in 2006, many faith-based groups at the time organized economic help for affected families. That in turn created trust and gave the local groups experience managing a crisis, according to the report.
Throughout the pandemic, these organizations used their connections to the community to provide information about preventing the spread of COVID-19. Organizations like Seeds of Justice, a network of Catholic groups, used social media to explain the testing and vaccination process. The report also describes one community leader who went door to door answering questions and assuaging concerns about the vaccine
After the initial outbreaks, the JBS processing facility served as another avenue for outreach to immigrant communities. The plant was a location for mass testing in 2020, and the company later offered workers money to get vaccinated.
According to the report, the response in Worthington’s community shows how local service organizations can be used in the future to bridge gaps in communication, especially between the government and immigrant communities or other vulnerable populations.
“Worthington’s social networks bridged a wide cultural and power gap between the area’s diverse immigrant communities and the large public and private institutions that mounted testing, vaccination drives, and other pandemic responses,” the report said.
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