Congress puts spotlight on abuses at Iowa plant

Print

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met Saturday with workers and community leaders to discuss the May 12 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors, Inc., plant. Earlier in the week, a House subcommittee heard testimony about how the raid has split families and the community.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Luis Gutierrez and Representatives Joe Baca and Albio Sires met with a 13-year-old U.S. citizen whose parent was detained in the raid and several women who have been released with electronic homing devices, or “ankle bracelets.”

They also discussed the impact of the raid on the broader Postville community with the mayor, school principal, religious leaders and a local relief team.

In an unprecedented move by the Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more than 300 of the 390 people arrested in the raid were convicted of aggravated criminal identity theft under a plea deal. An aggravated identity theft charge usually requires a person to knowingly steal someone else’s identity, or intent to use a person’s identity for personal gain, such as to run up credit.

Gutierrez argued the immigrants, many of them illiterate, could not have been guilty of the crime and that the due process rights of the immigrant workers were violated.

“Illegal immigration is not an aggravated felony,” Gutierrez said. “What they did here in Postville is unprecedented.

“Instead of tacitly supporting raids on factory workers or janitors or construction workers or maids, this Congress should be working to enact real solutions to our immigration problems,” added Gutierrez. “It is my sincere hope that in bringing the stories of the parents, children and workers of Postville back to Congress, our lawmakers will see the very real consequences of punitive actions in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.”

In testimony before the House Judiciary Immigration subcommittee on Thursday, several witnesses described how the raid had split families and hurt the community.

A climate of fear pervades the town, said the Rev. Paul Ouderkirk, pastor of St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church, which ministers to many of the workers. “The church was full of people, the rectory was full of people” and because of fear, they won’t come out. “We’re bedding down 800 people a day, and feeding them every meal” because they’re afraid to go home, the pastor said.

Literally, he said, kids would refuse to go to school because they feared they’d be picked up on the street by ICE agents, as their parents were. The kids are all U.S. citizens. The parents were a combination of undocumented workers, documented workers and green card holders from Latin America and – ironically for a kosher meat plant – two Israelis.

“What had been done over 15 years on diversity” to build up relations in the community between its white majority, the immigrant workers and the plant’s Orthodox Jewish owners from Brooklyn, N.Y., “was destroyed in one day,” Ouderkirk said.

But the problem isn’t just one plant in Postville, or one ICE raid, speakers said. United Food and Commercial Workers President Joe Hansen, whose union was trying to organize Postville when the raid occurred, cited other ICE raids nationwide.

After ICE raids on seven Swift & Co., packing plants , including one in Worthington, Minn., rounded up thousands of workers – only 62 of whom turned out to be suspected criminals – the UFCW opened a campaign against the agency, based on defending workers’ constitutional rights. UFCW represented the workers in six of those plants. The raids so crippled the historic Chicago meatpacker that it had to be sold to a Brazilian meatpacking firm.

“Agriprocessors is the poster child for how companies game our immigration system and how they exploit workers and drive down wages and working conditions in our industries,” Hansen said.

“We know Agriprocessors employed children as young as 13… Government documents have also exposed allegations of violence against workers. They describe a supervisor duct-taping a worker’s eyes and beating him with a meat hook. The worker says he was too afraid to come forward and report the incident. He was afraid he would be fired,” Hansen said.

The firm’s record of child labor violations, work and safety violations, wage and hour violations and other violations is so long it has drawn hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Its workers’ rights record is so bad that in May one of the three Jewish authorities that certify kosher meat yanked its recognition from Agriprocessors.

The solution, all the speakers said, was a rewrite of U.S. immigration law that would both set priorities for border enforcement and also provide a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented workers now in the United States. Deporting them, as ICE forced on the Postville workers, is not a solution, Hansen said.

“If you take 10 million to 15 million workers out of the country, you wouldn’t have any meat to eat, you wouldn’t have any chicken to eat, many of your hotel rooms wouldn’t be clean and half of all fast-food places would close,” he said. “There’s no reason for ICE to violate anyone’s constitutional rights.”

This article includes information from the website of Congressman Luis Gutierrez and reporting by Press Associates, Inc., news service.