Iowa meat plant raided again

ICE agents returned to the Agriprocessors Inc. kosher meat processing plant in the small town of Postville, Iowa, on Nov. 4 and arrested one suspected unauthorized worker, an ICE official said. Agents remained at the plant following the arrest, and frightened plant employees and their families quickly fled to the sanctuary of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which has been providing support to Postville’s immigrant population since ICE agents arrested 389 workers at the plant on May 12.

“It’s appalling that the federal agents chose today, Election Day, to spread fear amongst the residents of Postville,” said Marissa Graciosa, director of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement. (Postville is in a mainly rural area in northeastern Iowa. Throughout northeastern Iowa, voters overwhelmingly supported Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Nov. 4.) (Des Moines Register, Nov. 5)

Agriprocessors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Nov. 4, prompting the cancellation of a hearing scheduled for Nov. 5 in US District Court in Cedar Rapids, where the company was to face its biggest lender, First Bank of St. Louis. Agriprocessors owes at least $33 million to First Bank. The bank is seeking to foreclose on the Postville plant and appoint a third party to oversee the company’s

The bankruptcy filing says Agriprocessors owes between 200 and 999 creditors. The company owes $845,390 to the Des Moines-based labor company Jacobson Staffing, which had served as its human-resources and recruitment arm. During the last week of October, Jacobson suspended its relationship with Agriprocessors and pulled out its 450 employees, leaving the slaughterhouse with about 250 workers. (AP, Nov. 5; Houston Chronicle, Nov. 5)

By Nov. 12, all but about 25 of 200 workers who came to the plant from the island nation of Palau had left Postville, said Joanne Obak, one of the Palau workers. The remaining workers from Palau, including Obak, all planned to leave soon. The plant has not processed beef in about two weeks, and shifts in the chicken and turkey departments have been cut back to eight hours a day, workers said. “[T]hose who still have jobs can’t make it on eight hours a day,” Obak explained. Jeff Abbas, manager of local radio station KPVL, said buses arrived on Nov. 12 to take away the last of the Agriprocessors workers hired by Jacobson Staffing and another recruitment firm, One Force Staffing. (The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Nov. 13)

On Oct. 30, ICE agents arrested Agriprocessors former chief executive Sholom Rubashkin at his home in Postville. In a criminal complaint unsealed Oct. 30 in US District Court in Cedar Rapids, Rubashkin was charged with conspiring to harbor unauthorized immigrants for commercial gain, aiding and abetting document fraud, and aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft. Rubashkin was released on $1 million bail after a hearing; he faces a maximum of 22 years in prison if convicted on the federal charges.

According to the complaint, in the days before the raid, plant managers told many workers they would have to present valid identity documents or be fired. Two floor supervisors said they asked Rubashkin for a $4,500 loan to “help the employees who were to be terminated”; Rubashkin allegedly agreed to the cash loan on May 9. One supervisor said he loaned $200 each to about a dozen workers, who paid a line supervisor to buy fake documents. On May 11, the complaint charges, human resources managers worked all day under Rubashkin’s supervision to fill out job applications for workers with new fake documents. (New York Times, Oct. 31; Wall Street Journal, Oct. 31; Washington Post, Oct. 31; ICE news release, Oct. 30)

Agriprocessors supervisor Juan Carlos Guerrero-Espinoza pleaded guilty on Aug. 20 to conspiring to hire and aiding and abetting the hiring of unauthorized workers. Another supervisor, Martin de la Rosa, pleaded guilty to harboring charges on Aug. 27. (ICE news release, Aug. 27) The two supervisors were arrested at the plant on July 3. Agriprocessors human resources manager and payroll supervisor Laura Louise Althouse pleaded guilty on Oct. 29 to conspiracy to harbor unauthorized immigrants for financial gain and aggravated identity theft. (ICE news release, Oct. 29) Althouse and human resources manager Karina Freund were arrested in September. Freund, a Spanish translator who helped process work papers, is charged with aiding and abetting unauthorized immigrants. (AP, Oct. 30)

On Oct. 16 ICE spokesperson Tim Counts announced that 18 former Agriprocessors workers who were arrested in the May 12 raid had completed their five-month prison sentences for false document convictions at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami and had been released under supervision—with GPS electronic monitors on their ankles—to act as witnesses against Althouse and Freund. Less than a week after the workers completed their prison terms, federal agents had obtained warrants to hold them as material witnesses in the case; a federal judge then ordered that the workers be released with supervision. All 18 workers returned to Postville, where they are to remain for as long as federal prosecutors need them. They are eligible for work permits but will still face deportation after their cooperation is no longer needed. Court papers identified two of the workers as witnesses in the Freund case; the other 16 were listed as witnesses against Althouse. (It was unclear how Althouse’s Oct. 29 guilty plea may have affected their situation.) Robert Teig, assistant US attorney for the northern district of Iowa, said his office planned to call as additional witnesses another 13 immigrants who had just finished federal prison sentences in Tallahassee and Miami. Tim Counts said ICE has asked US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to fast-track the immigrants’ applications for work permits so they can find jobs. (Des Moines Register, Oct. 17)

On Oct. 29, Iowa labor authorities levied $10 million in fines against Agriprocessors for wage violations. About $9.6 million of the fines were for 96,436 illegal deductions totaling $192,597, taken from the paychecks of 2,001 workers for protective clothing that packinghouse workers were required to wear. Iowa inspectors assessed fines at $100 per incident. Agriprocessors was also fined $339,700 for illegally deducting more than $72,000 from the paychecks of 1,073 workers for “sales tax.” The company also failed to give final paychecks to 42 workers arrested in the raid, and owes $264,786 in back wages, Iowa officials said. The fines cover violations from January 2006 through June 2008. (NYT, Oct. 29)

On Sept. 9, the Iowa attorney general charged several Agriprocessors officials including Sholom Rubashkin and his father, Agriprocessors founder Abraham Aaron Rubashkin, with 9,311 misdemeanor violations of state child labor laws. The charges allege that Agriprocessors illegally hired 32 minors—including seven who were not yet 16 years old at the time—over the eight months prior to the May 12 raid, exposed the youths to dangerous chemicals and allowed them to operate meat grinders, circular saws and other heavy machinery. (WP, Oct. 31; NYT, Sept. 10)

The Oct. 30 arrest of Sholom Rubashkin appeared designed to appease those who had criticized the May 12 ICE raid in Postville as punishing the plant’s workers and not the employer. “Today, we are seeing concrete accountability in Postville, though it should not have taken the destruction of a town and cost more than five million taxpayer dollars to get here,” said US Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois who is a strong supporter of immigrants’ rights. (WP, Oct. 31) Rubashkin’s arrest came a day after the New York Times reported: “No federal charges have been brought against senior managers and owners of Agriprocessors.” (NYT, Oct. 29)

From Immigration News Briefs, Nov. 16

See our last posts on the politics of immigration and the struggle in Iowa.