Correction to This Article
A photo caption with the article incorrectly said that 4,000 people work at the plant. The company employs a total of 4,000 people at its 10 product plants in Decatur; it employs 250 at the BioProducts facility.

Suit Puts Focus on Immigrant Workers' Rights

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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

DECATUR, Ill. -- Gloria Garcia Barragan, 52, boarded a plane for the first time this summer to travel from her home in southern Mexico to Decatur. She came to this industrial central Illinois town to testify in the wrongful death lawsuit concerning her son, who died in 2007 at age 26 of burns from an accident at the BioProducts plant of Archer Daniels Midland.

Every week, Garcia's son, Francisco Garcia Moreno, sent money to his family. He came to the United States as a teenager and was earning about $16.50 an hour working for a contractor at the ADM plant, which makes lysine and other additives. Besides helping Garcia and his father, Antonio Garcia Valencia, an unemployed field worker with health problems, the funds helped support Francisco's five adult siblings in a town near Guadalajara.

ADM, whose global headquarters are in Decatur, offered the family $500,000 to settle. Attorney Donald Shapiro thought the family deserved more.

Shapiro knew declining ADM's offer and going to a jury trial would be a gamble, especially given anti-immigrant sentiment apparent in the highly charged national debate. Like many Midwestern cities and towns, Decatur has experienced an influx of immigrant workers in the past decade. Latinos make up only about 2 percent of Decatur's 75,000 population, but their growing presence is noticeable. Long-time residents welcome the new Mexican restaurants, but many resent the competition for jobs in a town with 12.4 percent unemployment, up from 8.3 percent a year ago.

He "wants to come up here and get killed, that's one more job for an American," said retired locomotive engineer Kenny Smith, noting that he has friends who get up at 3 a.m. to drive hundreds of miles to Chicago or Indianapolis in search of work.

The Garcias decided to put their faith in a local jury, declining Archer Daniel's $500,000 and a later offer of $1 million.

On Sept. 11, a jury awarded the family $6.7 million, among the largest such judgments in state history for a childless man.

Shapiro said the award shows the jurors -- 11 white, one black -- "really tried to treat this family just like any other family that had lost a son."

"I think they cut across all the lines of prejudice, both prejudice against people who are Mexican and who are poor," he said.

Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said anti-immigrant feelings are always a concern with juries, but he said people typically sympathize with an individual even if they have negative feelings toward immigrants as a whole.

"That's human nature," he said.

Decatur is known as a proud union town that has had more than its share of hard knocks. In 1999, Jesse L. Jackson led high-profile protests over the expulsion of seven African American students for fighting at a high school football game.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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