SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Anthony Pretrick was scraping by as a fisherman in his Pacific island homeland of Micronesia when he met a job recruiter with an irresistible offer: There was a fortune to be made slaughtering hogs in a faraway place called Iowa.
A new pork processing plant was hiring workers for $15.95 an hour — nearly 10 times what Mr. Pretrick, 26, made. . He would get a one-way plane ticket. A hotel room. Free meals. Cash to send home to his wife and two sons. Hundreds of other Micronesians had already signed up.
“It was big money for us,” Mr. Pretrick said. “We left.”
Poverty propelled the Micronesians to take jobs trimming pork carcasses, jobs that few Americans want in an era of record low unemployment. And a quirk of law made Micronesians like Mr. Pretrick uniquely valuable to employers who might be worried about becoming the next target of the Trump administration’s workplace immigration raids: They were legal, allowed to work in the United States without visas or green cards under decades-old agreements rooted in America’s atomic testing and military history in the Pacific.
But what unfolded after 200 Micronesians made the 7,000-mile journey over the past year to the cornfields and hog farms of western Iowa became a tangled migration saga of what the workers called mistreatment and broken promises.
The workers say their pay was siphoned off to repay their $1,800 plane tickets. They say a recruiter for the pork plant seized their passports and threatened to have the workers deported if they got sick or missed shifts. The workers struggled to find their footing in an unfamiliar city where they knew nobody, spoke little English and spent their days being shuttled back and forth between their hotel and 10-hour shifts at the pork plant.
“We were lost,” Mr. Pretrick said.
For decades, thousands of people from Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands have migrated to work in the United States at nursing homes, cleaning companies, coffee farms and food plants in Hawaii, Arkansas, Missouri and elsewhere. They arrive and can work legally under agreements called Compacts of Free Association, but they are usually ineligible for Medicaid or other federal benefits — an omission that advocates say leaves many islanders impoverished and sick in the United States.
Now, as the Trump administration slashes refugee admissions and arrests hundreds of immigrant workers in high-profile raids at meatpacking plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, the Pacific Islanders are becoming an increasingly attractive option for businesses searching for entry-level workers.
“These employers understand we’re legal residents,” said Jocelyn Howard, the program director for We Are Oceania, a Hawaii-based advocacy group. “For recruiters in America, it’s a good opportunity because we’re legal.”
The workers who landed in Iowa were recruited to work at a huge new pork plant operated by Seaboard Triumph Foods that employs 2,400 people and butchers about 21,000 pigs a day.
Seaboard Triumph touts its technological advances and community awards, but it is now facing an international public-relations mess after a video went viral showing one of the company’s recruiters yelling at workers in a hotel lobby and then grabbing for a woman who had been recording him.
The embassy of the Federated States of Micronesia sent the State Department a letter calling for an investigation. The union that represents most workers at the plant began looking into the allegations. Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa said the state would temporarily block millions of dollars in incentives for Seaboard Triumph.
A spokeswoman for Seaboard Triumph said the company followed all labor laws and had not forced or coerced the Micronesians to travel to Iowa. The company said it helped its Micronesian recruits adjust to life and work in the state by paying for temporary housing, meals and transportation after they arrived. It gave each worker a $100 gift card.
After the complaints erupted, Seaboard Triumph said it had suspended the recruiter who was seen on the video yelling at Micronesian workers and declaring that the female workers were “my women.” Last week, Seaboard sent a letter to its Micronesian employees saying it was canceling their obligations to repay their airfare.
“We’ll continue to support you as one of our valuable employees,” the letter said.
The Micronesian recruits who arrived over the past year, some with little more than shorts and flip-flops, said in interviews they had no problem with their working conditions at the plant.
The Micronesians were hardly the first immigrants to go to work in western Iowa’s packing plants. While much of the landscape is overwhelmingly white and conservative — voters here narrowly elected the anti-immigrant Rep. Steve King to a ninth term in 2018 — a more diverse future is taking shape in meatpacking towns like Storm Lake and Sioux City.
At factory shift changes, a polyphony of dialects from Central America, Africa and Myanmar floats through parking lots. The Virgin of Guadalupe hangs from some rearview mirrors; pastel leis dangle from others. On Saturday afternoons, Latino families line up for tangy mangonadas at La Palapa, a food trailer in Sioux City. The Hong Kong Food Store stocks its shelves with dried shrimp, spicy kimchi, taro, palm oil and other flavors of distant homes.
“We’re a meatpacking town,” said Mayor Bob Scott of Sioux City. “They came, they assimilated, they’re coaches in our schools.”
The Micronesian workers said their trouble began soon after they boarded flights from the island of Pohnpei for the two-day trek to Iowa. Many were nervous about traveling outside Micronesia for the first time, and they said that a guide who had been promised to them to navigate their airport transfers never showed up.
They landed at 3 a.m. for long layovers in Honolulu, often confused and hungry. Some did not have enough money for an airport meal. They were thirsty because they did not realize they could ask a flight attendant for more juice or soda. One worker kept visiting the airplane bathroom to refill a plastic water glass, said Mele Tataipu Arati, a Hawaiian-Samoan relative of some workers who lives in northern Iowa.
Ms. Howard, the Hawaii-based advocate, said that members of Oahu’s Micronesian diaspora began rushing to the airport with food and water for the arriving workers, and helped them connect to their mainland flights.
“These people were so hungry,” she said. “In our culture we’re so trusting and respecting and caring for each other. We expect the same. But in America it’s different. You’re on your own.”
Several workers said that a recruiter for the plant took their passports, ostensibly to verify their legal work status and get Social Security numbers, but then refused to return them. They said they did not have any other identification to cash checks, open bank accounts or wire money back home. Seaboard Triumph said it was not holding any employees’ passports.
Outside the plant one afternoon, Danifer Mark said he felt stranded. He was bewildered by America’s immigration bureaucracy, and was contemplating whether he should quit and try to move in with relatives in Cincinnati.
“How can I go back?” he asked. “I’m stuck. I don’t have money. What am I going to do?”
Curtis Weilbacher, a Micronesian citizen who helped hire many of the workers, attributed the problems to cultural divides, misunderstandings and misbehavior by workers who drank too much and caused trouble. (Mr. Weilbacher is not the recruiter who was suspended after being captured berating workers on the video)
“The mistake we made is we sent all of them at once,” Mr. Weilbacher said, as he headed into a workers’ meeting to discuss their grievances. “When you pick apples, the next day there are some rotten ones inside. You need to remove them.”
Some of the Micronesian workers said Seaboard and the local hotel that housed them had been fair and welcoming. The hotel provided dinners and karaoke nights and a free shuttle to take them to the plant. They said their countrymen and Micronesian officials had blown the complaints out of proportion on social media.
But others were adrift. They struggled to find apartments or come up with the advance rent and security deposits that American landlords required, and felt as though they had no option but to stay on at the downtown hotel that had initially put them up free.
“There’s three of us, and it’s $1,500 a month,” said Jowain Alexander, 34, who trims pork shoulders. “They told us they’d find a house for us. They didn’t. They said they’ll provide food. But now we have to pay for our own food. I don’t want to go out on the streets, sleeping under a bridge.”
Other workers had quit and had moved to Colorado, to other towns in Iowa, or even back home to jobs that pay $1.75 an hour.
“I’ll stay,” Mr. Alexander said. “My wife and my kids need money.”
Miriam Jordan contributed reporting.