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Would You Work the Graveyard Shift at a Chicken Slaughterhouse in Alabama?

A new book tells the story of how one New York-based journalist embedded himself in the backbreaking work routinely performed by immigrant laborers.

"Have you ever wondered why poultry plant workers don't hang their plastic smocks outside on a line to dry after a shift spent covered in chicken juice and meat?" Gabriel Thompson asked in a recent e-mail. "The answer: red ants."

Thompson found this out "ten minutes into a new shift [at a chicken slaughterhouse in Alabama] when [he] felt a bite, and then another, and another, and looked down to see red ants swarming around my chest, stomach, arms, and other places, too. Evidently," Thompson pointed out, "red ants are attracted to the stench of dead chickens."

Following in the tradition of journalists thoroughly embedding themselves in their reporting -- think John Howard Griffin, a white man who in the 1960s spent six weeks busing around the South passing as a black man, or Barbara Ehrenreich who spent several months being "nickeled and dimed" as she worked an assortment of service sector jobs around the country -- Gabriel Thompson took to the road last year to work mostly alongside Latino immigrant workers. His forthcoming book, Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs Americans Won't Do (Nation Books), tells the story of not only his personal experiences, but the realities of immigrant workers that traded economic deprivation and/or political oppression of their homelands for America's elusive promises.

Thompson did the kind of backbreaking work that most Americans wouldn't think of doing. In a recent e-mail, Thompson wrote that "He stooped over lettuce fields in Arizona … worked the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse in rural Alabama, … dodged taxis … as a bicycle delivery 'boy' for an upscale Manhattan restaurant, and was fired from a flower shop by a boss who, he quickly realized, was nuts."

The Brooklyn-based Thompson has contributed to New York magazine, The Nation,The New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, In These Times, and others publications. He is the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media Award, and is the author of There's No Jose Here and Calling All Radicals.

In this exclusive and extensive interview for AlterNet, Thompson reflects on working on the margins.

Bill Berkowitz: Journalists immersing themselves in a challenging project has a long and proud tradition. Did you draw inspiration from any reporters that came before you? Why did you decide to approach the issue of immigration from this angle?

Gabriel Thompson: Two journalists immediately come to mind as inspiration: George Orwell and Barbara Ehrenreich. Orwell dove into his non-fiction projects head on -- from reporting on the Spanish Civil War as an actual participant in Homage to Catalonia, to going into the coal mines to write The Road to Wigan Pier. More recently, Ehrenreich opened many Americans eyes to the lives of the working poor with her book Nickel and Dimed. But as I learned more about undercover or immersion journalism, I found that there was a huge group of reporters -- going back hundreds of years -- that have been using it as a tactic. As you say, it has a long and proud tradition; I just didn't know how deep and wide that tradition ran until doing research for this book.

I call it a tactic as opposed to a gimmick because I think there's a distinction. To me, immersion journalism isn't about simply a self-glorifying project that turns every experience or subject into a personal one. Instead, I hope that the personal stories help folks identify with the narrative, but that the end result isn't that the reader feels bad for me -- I'm just an interloper here. The real point is to get the sorts of access you otherwise couldn't, and to hopefully create some empathy for the folks whose labor we depend on every day, but who are largely invisible.