By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
In May, there was a huge raid at a meatpacking plant in little Postville, Iowa. It was a shock and awe event, helicopters overhead and ICE (Immigration and Customs) officers swaggering and shouting orders. The biggest immigration raid of 2008 — but it was notable for another reason as well.
Usually immigrant worker violations are handled as civil matters, not criminal offenses. The violators, poor people found out of compliance with immigration rules, are usually detained, processed and deported. But the government upped the ante in Postville: It decided to treat these workers as criminals and to set up temporary courts at the nearby fairgrounds, assembly-lining workers before judges. Charged with using false IDs, undocumented workers were sentenced to five months in prison, and deportation afterward.
The New York Times on May 24 said, “The unusually swift proceedings, in which 297 immigrants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in four days, were criticized by criminal defense lawyers, who warned of violations of due process.” Immigration experts protested. It seems to these experts “that workers had been denied meetings with immigration lawyers and that their claims under immigration law had been swept aside in unusually speedy plea agreements.”
This raid disturbs me, but I will not write my typical polemic that the Bush administration is bringing about a police state. I won’t connect the Postville mass court proceedings to Guantanamo and to Chertoff suspending 36 acts of Congress to build the Border Wall. I should probably develop this theme, but this time I will let my politically savvy readers draw those connections themselves. I simply want to relate some background details about this raid in Iowa.
First, before reviewing historical material, let me describe some protest activity in Postville since the raid. The National Catholic Reporter described pastoral leaders at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church organizing a protest march to the fairgrounds where the courts were held. “The government’s actions have created fear and destroyed a vibrant community,” said a Lutheran bishop who joined the march. The food pantry at St. Bridget’s has been open every day instead of the usual once a week. Many people are asking for help in paying bills because the family breadwinner is locked up; people are scrambling to travel (often with kids) thousands of miles home, needing help for transportation costs.
Secondly, I’ll give a quick history of Postville’s slaughterhouse. (I am drawing mainly, with permission and encouragement, from researcher Stephen G. Bloom, a University of Iowa professor who wrote a book on Postville and its immigrant workers. Professor Bloom emailed me suggesting I quote Niemann Watchdog online, October 13, 2006 and May 18, 2008).
Several decades ago, meatpacking (hungry for profit) started to shift from big cities like Chicago, Fort Worth and Kansas City to small towns closer to where the cattle were raised. They wanted “fewer uni*ns, cheaper land, less transportation costs and less government oversight,” according to Bloom. In 1980, uni*n meatpackers in bigger cities could earn $19 an hour not including benefits, while small town plant workers today might make little more than minimum wage (Bloom).
I am reminded of the excellent fictionalized movie expose of Midwest meatpacking, “Fast Food Nation.” Thinking about that film reminds me to mention that probably along with low wages in small town meatpacking plants there is lots of speed-up and overtime hours worked. Speed-up and overtime are particularly dangerous, of course, in injury-prone meatpacking plants. A central part of the movie is a gruesome industrial accident.
In 1987, an Hasidic butcher and his family came out from Brooklyn and began producing kosher beef in Postville, Iowa. A number of rabbis came to town too: the “kosher” label requires certification by rabbis at certain points in the process. AgriProcessors was born. By using non-uni*n labor and cutting transportation costs, it became a golden goose. In the mid-1990s, numbers of workers (no doubt, some undocumented) came from Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia, notably) and were exploited by the operation to great benefit. They lived in trailer courts outside of town, often five men to a trailer, and soon the Spice and Ice Liquor Store was selling 24 (!) different brands of Vodka (Bloom).
But when cheap labor from Eastern Europe dried up and the workers moved off to bigger cities, more and more Guatemalans and Mexicans were hired at the plant and the liquor store started selling more Mexican beer and tequila, although most Mexicans there preferred Budweiser (Bloom). AgriProcessors grew more prosperous. Not just the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world, it soon sold meats widely to chains like Wal-Mart and HEB. (Martha Rosenberg, Counterpunch online.)
A Latino community grew in Postville. The coin-operated Family Laundry boomed, and so did El Vaquero clothing store, which sells Mexican style shirts and quinceaneras dresses (Bloom). But underneath the apparent success, the workers’ undocumented status was a poorly kept secret. And other non-secrets beset the greedy company. Bloom gives a summary:
“Everyone knew what was happening…PETA [an animal rights group] had been in the slaughterhouse and produced a video documenting abuses. The U.S. Department of Labor had fined the company for repeated workplace safety issues. The EPA was involved because the company had discharged pollutants. The USDA mandated recalls because of unsanitary conditions.” (AgriProcessors was hardly squeaky clean — again I recommend readers stop at the video store and get Fast Food Nation.)
That is some background information to ICE sending breadwinners to prison in Postville. Perhaps it can be seen now as a bit more complicated than the first cursory headlines we saw about a wonderful and efficient enforcement operation.
A few further comments. I emailed Jodi Goodwin of Harlingen, a board-certified immigration and nationalization attorney whom I have interviewed several times for my column:
Nick Braune: The Postville raid, as was pointed out earlier, lined the workers up for criminal offences not just the civil ones that used to be common practice. Is this a bad sign? Do you expect that ICE will be pushing for criminal prosecution like this in other places?
Jodi Goodwin: ICE will definitely be pushing for more prosecutions like we have seen in Postville and other locations recently. This is all part of ICE’s strategic plan called “Endgame.” I do not expect prosecutions to lighten up at all; I expect them to become more frequent.
Nick: I have heard some ominous things about the “Endgame” document, but I haven’t done my homework on it. I intend to report on it in a future column. There is something else I am curious about after reading about Postville and St. Bridget Parish trying to help people there. I’m picturing a Guatemalan family (Mom, Dad and a toddler child) living in a trailer in Postville, where Dad, the breadwinner, has been working in the slaughterhouse for two years. When the raid took place and Dad was whisked off with 296 others to five months in prison, didn’t the government have to give mom and child any financial help?
(For instance, if mom wants to take the child with her back to Guatemala, is there any financial aid to do that? Or if she wants to stay in Postville while her husband is in prison, does the government give her any financial assistance to pay rent? And because the child is born in the states and is therefore a citizen, do they get food stamps and CHIP for insurance?)
Jodi: The U.S. Government does nothing to make arrangements for the families of those they prosecute. In fact they would probabl
the best they could to get a deportation order for the wife as well. They would probably tell the wife and husband to make their own arrangements for the child. As far as benefits are concerned, the child, but no one else, would be eligible for benefits like food stamps and probably CHIP.
Nick: Thank you, counselor. I fear our country is acting worse toward immigrants all the time, and I think you have a very important job.