Community in fear following Iowa meat plant raid

On May 12, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out its largest ever mass arrest at a single worksite, seizing 389 of the 970 employees at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. ICE took the workers, most of them Guatemalan, to the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in Waterloo, Iowa for processing. (AP, May 16)

A Raid Forewarned
Activists and residents in the Waterloo area had begun to fear an imminent immigration raid as early as May 4, when the Waterloo Courier quoted National Cattle Congress (NCC) general manager Doug Miller as confirming that the federal government was leasing the privately-owned fairgrounds through May 25 under an agreement approved by the NCC board. The Courier noted that contractors had installed massive generators adjacent to many buildings on the fairgrounds; that windows of many of the buildings were covered up; and that a number of large mobile home-size trailers had been transported to the grounds. (Waterloo Courier, May 4)

The Des Moines Register picked up the story on May 6, reporting that Miller wouldn’t let the Register see a copy of NCC’s rental contract with the US General Services Administration, and that he said he didn’t know what the government planned to do with the fairgrounds. “ICE never talks about our investigative activity or possible future enforcement actions,” the paper quoted ICE spokesperson Tim Counts as saying. “Regarding the exercise in Waterloo, there is currently no publicly releasable information about that, so we aren’t releasing any,” Counts told the Register. (Des Moines Register, May 6)

Anticipating that the fairgrounds were being prepared for use as a detention center following a mass raid, activists organized a “know your rights” meeting at the Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Waterloo on May 11, following the church’s Spanish-language noon mass. The activists handed out information about what people should do when confronted by law enforcement agents, and provided contact information for immigration attorneys in Iowa. Activists also held a strategy session to talk about how to respond in case of a raid. (DMR, May 11)

The Arrests
The raid took place the next day, not in Waterloo but a 77-mile drive northeast in the tiny community of Postville, which has a population of about 2,300. The operation, the result of a 16-month investigation, began with helicopters, buses and vans encircling the western edge of Postville at 10 AM. Witnesses said hundreds of agents surrounded the Agriprocessors plant in 10 minutes, began interviewing workers and seized company records. After an announcement over the plant’s loudspeaker said ICE agents were in the plant, many of the workers tried to hide or run. Some workers who were in the plant at the time of the raid managed to evade authorities. (DMR, May 14; Washington
Post, May 18)

According to an ICE press release, the agency executed a criminal search warrant at the factory for evidence relating to aggravated identity theft, fraudulent use of Social Security numbers and other crimes, as well as a civil search warrant for people present in the US without permission. The operation was led by US Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa Matt Dummermuth and ICE Special Agent in Charge Claude Arnold, and carried out with assistance from the US Marshals Service, US Postal Inspections Service, Iowa Department of Public Safety, Iowa Department of Transportation, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Protective Service, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations, US Department of Labor, Public Health Service, US Department of Agriculture, US Environmental Protection Agency, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Drug Enforcement Administration, Waterloo Police Department and Postville Police Department. (ICE news release, May 12)

Those arrested included 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, four Ukrainians and two Israelis, according to the US attorney’s office for the Northern District of Iowa. Of the total 389 people arrested, 76 were adult women and 18 were children ranging in age from 13 to 17. The children were turned over to adult guardians or to the US Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the care of unaccompanied minors found to be present in the US without valid immigration status. Of the adults, 306 were charged with aggravated identity theft and other crimes related to the use of false documents. (WP, May 18; DMR, May 17)

As of May 14, 56 of the workers—mostly women with young children—had been released under ICE supervision for humanitarian reasons. Most of them were required to wear an electronic monitoring device around one ankle. (DMR, May 14) One worker who was detained with the others on May 12 but was released the same day for medical reasons said that three weeks before the raid a supervisor at the plant told her to “change her papers” to make them look more realistic. The woman asked not to be identified because she feared retaliation from ICE. (DMR, May 14)

A Community in Fear
Bob Teig, spokesperson for the US attorney’s office in Iowa’s northern district, noted on May 15 that the raid included 697 arrest warrants and said the investigation was “ongoing.” (AP, May 16; Chicago Tribune, May 5) Worry of more raids on homes led as many as 200 Postville residents, including entire families, to seek shelter at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in the days following the operation at Agriprocessors. The church provided food, a place to sleep, and a way for parents and their children to continue a daily routine. Sister Mary McCauley said, “I heard today that even some of the children, the small children at the Postville school, made a petition, and it said ‘Do not take our families away.’ And that’s how we feel.” (KCRG News, Cedar Rapids, May 15)

Half of the Postville school system’s 600 students were absent on May 13, including 90% of the Latino children, because their parents were arrested or in hiding. Postville Community Schools superintendent David Strudthoff said the sudden incarceration of more than 10% of the town’s population “is like a natural disaster—only this one is manmade.” (WP, May 18)

Gustavo Lopez, Guatemala’s consul general in Chicago, arrived at St. Bridget’s late on May 15 after spending two days in Waterloo meeting with Guatemalan detainees to make sure they were being treated humanely. Lopez said ICE field director Scott Baniecke in Minneapolis assured him there would be no more raids in Postville in the immediate future. (The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, May 15)

“In several instances children went as long as 72 hours without seeing their mother or father, not knowing where they were,” said Bishop Steven Ullestad of the Northeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Families have been torn, some have been taken to Waterloo while the remaining spouse is left behind with an electronic monitoring device on their ankle.” Ullestad said religious leaders will work with Postville residents to help them recover spiritually from the raid’s impact. “The recovery of an entire town being violated in this way will take years. Even if they find another 390 workers tomorrow, the town will be in a process of recovery not unlike post-traumatic stress syndrome.” (The Gazette, May 17)

Criminal Convictions
After meeting with defense lawyers appointed by the court, 297 of the 389 arrested Agriprocessors workers quickly accepted guilty pleas on criminal charges including use of false identification documents to obtain employment, false use of a Social Security number or cards and unlawful re-entry into the US. Over four days from May 20 through 23, in an emergency court setup approved by chief judge Linda R. Reade, the workers were brought in groups of 10, their hands and feet shackled, to makeshift courtrooms set up in trailers and in a modified dance hall at the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds.

In what US attorney Matt Dummermuth called an “astonishing success,” 270 of the workers were sentenced to five months in prison each; another 27 received probation. It appeared that those receiving prison time were mainly charged with using real Social Security numbers that belonged to other people, while those receiving probation had primarily used invented Social Security numbers that did not belong to anyone. Most of the workers agreed to immediate deportation following completion of their sentences. The workers are also required to cooperate with any ongoing federal investigation of Agriprocessors.

The workers accepted the five-month sentences because prosecutors threatened to try anyone who didn’t accept the plea deals on felony identity theft charges that carry a mandatory two-year minimum jail sentence. In an interview, Judge Reade said prosecutors “have tried to be fair in their charging” and had organized the immigrants’ detention to make it easy for their lawyers to meet with them. (New York Times, May 24; DMR, May 19; AP, June 1)

Five workers did not enter pleas to criminal charges; their cases are pending in US District Court in Cedar Rapids. About 60 workers were released for humanitarian reasons and do not face criminal charges, while 20 others are detained on civil immigration violations and face deportation proceedings, said Teig, the US attorney’s office spokesperson. (AP, June 1)

Defense lawyer David Nadler said the plea agreements were the best deal available for his clients. But Nadler was dismayed that prosecutors had denied probation and had insisted that the workers serve jail time and that they agree to a rarely used judicial order for immediate deportation upon their release, signing away their rights to go to immigration court. “That’s not the defense of justice,” Nadler said. “That’s just politics.” (NYT, May 24)

Company Implicated
As of June 1, not one company official faced any charges. (AP, June 1) Officials with ICE and the US attorney’s office have declined to comment on whether a grand jury has been convened. Ron Wahls, a guidance counselor in the Postville school district who has connections to the plant, told the Des Moines Register he had been summoned to appear before a grand jury. (DMR, May 31)

According to a 57-page federal affidavit filed by ICE senior special agent David M. Hoagland in support of the criminal search warrant issued for the May 12 raid on Agriprocessors, 76% of the 968 employees on the company’s payroll over the last three months of 2007 used false or suspect Social Security numbers. According to the affidavit, undercover sources who were wearing recording devices said supervisors instructed employees to “fix” their Social Security numbers. The affidavit cited unnamed sources who alleged that some company supervisors employed 15-year-olds, helped cash checks for workers with fake documents, and pressured workers without documents to purchase vehicles and register them in other names. In addition, the affidavit alleged that company supervisors ignored a report of a methamphetamine drug lab operating in the plant. It also cited a case in which a supervisor blindfolded a Guatemalan worker and allegedly struck him with a meat hook, without serious injury. (WP, May 18; Chicago Tribune, May 18; The Gazette, May 15)

On May 15, a class-action lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, charging federal authorities with violating the Agriprocessors workers’ Fifth Amendment rights to due process by exposing them to “prolonged and indefinite detention,” hindering their access to attorneys. The Peck Law Firm and Dornan & Lustgarten firm in Omaha, Nebraska filed the lawsuit on behalf of an estimated 147 detained immigrant workers. The suit alleged that the detained workers hadn’t had adequate time for legal services and that moving them out of Iowa to various detention centers, as ICE had planned to do, would effectively destroy the ongoing relationship between detainees and their attorneys. The three named petitioners in the suit—Antonin Trinidad Candido, Roman Trinidad Candido and Maria del Refugio Masias, all Agriprocessors employees who were detained in the raid—were subsequently released.

According to the suit, Polk County attorney Sonia Parras Konrad interviewed over 50 detainees who told her that Agriprocessors procured false identification for its immigrant employees; withheld money from their paychecks for “immigration fees”; didn’t allow employees to use the restroom during 10-hour shifts; didn’t compensate employees for overtime; and were physically abused by supervisors. The lawsuit argues that the workers, as victims of these alleged crimes, would be eligible for special visas, and that if they are transferred from Iowa they would be deprived of their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. “As victims they would need to participate in the investigations of the alleged crimes and may be needed to testify as to personal experiences,” the lawsuit said. It also claimed that some of the detained workers could be eligible for immigration relief because they have spouses and children who are US citizens.

The suit named as defendants ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, along with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for ICE Julie Myers, ICE Special Agent in Charge Claude Arnold and US Attorney General Michael Mukasey. (Chicago Tribune, May 18; AP, May 16, 17; The Gazette, May 15)

Late on May 16, the day after the suit was filed, an agreement was reached between the two sides to allow the 83 arrested workers who were not criminally charged to remain in Iowa at least until their administrative bond hearings are held. That could take six months or more, the attorneys said. (AP, May 17)

Tim Junker, a US marshal for Iowa’s northern judicial district, said on May 21 that the immigrants who pleaded guilty to criminal charges will serve most of their five-month prison sentences outside of Iowa. The workers will be held in Iowa jails for anywhere from two weeks to two months before the federal penal system assigns them to other locations. There are no federal prisons in Iowa. (DMR, May 22)

Union Drive, Investigations Thwarted?
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has been trying to organize the Postville plant and had sought to prevent a raid there. In a May 2 letter to ICE officials, UFCW international vice president Mark Lauritsen notified the agency of an ongoing labor dispute at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, and said he was concerned that any potential ICE action could have a “chilling effect” on the existing work force, which had reported workplace violations in the past. In addition, ICE action could result in employees leaving the plant, thus interfering with a government investigation that would “ultimately uncover unscrupulous employer acts,” he said. “With these labor disputes in progress, we urge you to suspend any potentially existing enforcement efforts and refuse to be involved in this labor dispute in accordance with the internal guidance, ‘Questioning Persons During Labor Disputes,'” Lauritsen wrote.

Union leaders had earlier alerted state and federal labor officials to allegations Agriprocessors was exploiting underage workers and paying them off the books, UFCW spokesperson Jill Cashen said on May 12 in Washington DC. Now that hundreds of Agriprocessors employees have been detained, “how can justice ever be served on these exploitation issues?” Cashen asked.

Iowa Labor Commissioner Dave Neil confirmed that a state investigation of possible labor law violations at the Agriprocessors plant was under way. The probe involved alleged violations of wage and child labor laws, he said. “I can’t really get into the specifics,” he said. (DMR, May 13)

ICE may be “deporting 390 witnesses” to the labor investigation, said Lauritsen, the UFCW official. “This employer has a long history of violating every law that’s out there—labor laws, environmental laws, now immigration laws,” Lauritsen added. In April, the company lost a federal appellate court battle over whether it could ignore a unionization vote by workers at its distribution center in Brooklyn, New York, on grounds that those who favored the union were out-of-status immigrants not entitled to federal labor protections.

In 2006, the Jewish newspaper Forward revealed allegations that Agriprocessors workers were underpaid and exploited. That same year, Agriprocessors paid a $600,000 settlement to the Environmental Protection Agency to resolve wastewater pollution problems. In 2004, the US Agriculture Department’s inspector general accused the company of “acts of inhumane slaughter” after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animals rights group, publicized an unauthorized video of a stumbling, dying cow. (WP, May 18; Jerusalem Post, May 16)

In March of this year, following inspections of the Postville plant in October 2007 and February 2008, the Iowa Division of Labor Services announced that Agriprocessors would be subject to a fine of $182,000 for 39 violations of workplace safety rules. Many of the alleged violations related to hazardous chemicals, blood-borne pathogens and what the state called “serious health violations.” Yet eight days after the fines were announced, state labor officials signed an agreement with company officials to reduce the fines stemming from 26 of the violations found during the October 2007 inspection. A week later, in April, state officials and the company agreed to reduce the fines tied to 13 violations found during the February 2008 inspection. The agreements, in which the company agreed to correct some of the violations, reduced the total amount of the fines from $182,000 to $42,750. (DMR, May 31; AP, June 1)

Safety Problems Persist
Agriprocessors is the largest employer in northeast Iowa and the Postville plant is the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking facility. The company, established in 1987 by Brooklyn, New York butcher Aaron Rubashkin, produces about 60% of the kosher meat and 40% of the kosher poultry in the US market. It produces kosher and non-kosher meat and poultry products under brands such as Iowa Best Beef, Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s. The company said in a May 23 statement that it was seeking a new chief executive for the Postville operation to replace the owner’s son, Sholom Rubashkin. (WP, May 18; AP, June 1; Jerusalem Post, May 16, 28)

The company lost nearly half of the Postville plant’s workforce in the May 12 ICE raid. The plant was closed on the day of the raid but resumed operation the next day at a reduced level. (AP, June 1) As of May 16, company spokesperson Chaim Abrahams said Agriprocessors has been hiring more workers but was not at full capacity. He also said the company is improving its hiring procedures to ensure that workers are legal residents. “We have signed up for a government electronic verification program, and are working with our consultants,” he said. (AP, May 16)

Agriprocessors also brought in Labor Ready, a Waterloo company that provides nonskilled workers on contract. But 10 days into a contract, in the middle of the week that started May 26, Labor Ready pulled its estimated 150 workers out of the Postville plant because of safety concerns, according to Stacey Burke of Labor Ready’s parent company, TrueBlue. “There was a concern on the part of my field operators about the safety and care afforded to our workers,” Burke said. “We felt as if there was a violation on our core principles.” Burke declined to specify what safety violations the field operators observed but said that Labor Ready does not have a “one strike and you’re out” violation policy for worksites. (DMR, May 31)

From Immigration News Briefs, June 2

See our last post on the politics of immigration.