More than a decade ago, Maria Morales entered the United States illegally. It was an arduous journey, one whose memory still conjures up feelings of intense trauma. As a university student in Ecuador, she did not see a path out of poverty. Morales is now an actively engaged American citizen. Last weekend, Morales joined a group of Twin Cities Jews with the Jewish Community Action (JCA) on a trip from Minneapolis to Postville, Iowa to protest a recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on AgriProcessors, a kosher meatpacking plant.
Two months ago, immigration officials arrested and charged 270 men and women with aggravated identity theft, improper use of Social Security numbers, and use of false identification cards. The raid has left the small town of 2200 deserted and desolate.
Protesters from Minneapolis marched in Postville.
About 1200 people, including the JCA group from Minneapolis, descended on the small town on Sunday, calling for comprehensive immigration reform and the enforcement of workers rights. The rally, attended by Jewish and Catholic religious leaders, called on legislators to give legal status to undocumented workers.
A counter-protest group of about 150, organized by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, rallied for the immediate deportation of illegal immigrants. Chanting “Illegals go Home” and “American Jobs for Americans,” they waved placards that read, “Ask Me Why You Will Go To Hell” and “Stop the Illegal Immigration.”
Vic Rosenthal, the executive director of the JCA, stood to speak to the charged crowd of protestors.
“We are here because we care about how workers are treated in this country,” Rosenthal said. Referring to an article in Sunday’s New York Times that alleged that AgriProcessors had underage employees, and underpaid workers, he spoke about ” troubling reports of treatment of workers that is unconscionable.”
Gideon Aronoff, the President of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, explained the presence of Jewish groups in the campaign for immigrant rights, saying, “It is simple. Jewish values call for the care of the stranger.”
Postville Mayor Robert Penrod addresses protesters.
The town’s mayor, Robert Penrod, also spoke out against the raids. He called on congressional representatives to seek solutions towards immigration reform, lamenting the loss of jobs in an otherwise vibrant Hispanic community in Postville.
Rabbis from Minneapolis at interfaith prayers at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville.
Citing the principles of kosher observance, the Jewish leaders made clear that the obligations these placed on Jews did not just apply to the food that they ate, but the humane treatment of all humanity. The Jewish-owned plant in Postville is the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States, producing about 60% of kosher meat, and 40% of kosher chicken in retail stores from Wal-Mart to Albertson’s.
Getzebel Rubashkin, the grandson of Aaron Rubashkin, the owner of Agriprocessors, denied claims that the plant acted illegally in any way.
On the undocumented workers and alleged reports of underage workers he said,”They deceived the supervisors and provided documents that looked good. … People are being fed lies about my family.”
Twelve-year-old Pedro Lopez, who declared his identity was both Mexican and American, spoke with great emotion to the already electrified audience, saying, “I was only three when my parents and I came to this country.”
Diana Lopez, whose husband was arrested during the raid, with her daughter Arayly.
Diana Lopez and her daughter Arayly also worried about their future. Lopez’s husband was one of the arrested plant workers. Like all the others, he was convicted on felony charges and will be jailed for at least five months, after which he will be deported. This is the first time in U.S. history that the government has used criminal charges as a deportation tactic in an immigration raid. The Lopez family, who have lived in Iowa for at least 16 years, have few ties outside of the United States. Rendered destitute by the incarceration of her husband, the family’s sole bread-winner, Lopez seeks support from St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, where she is fortunate to receive food, shelter and clothing for her daughter and two sons.
St. Bridget’s now serves as the refuge for the families of the arrested factory workers. Organizations such as JCA have contributed thousands of dollars, and in-kind gifts that have allowed the church to meet the daily needs of the broken community.
The Postville rally was organized by the Jewish Community Action (St. Paul, Minnesota), the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (Chicago, Illinois) and St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church (Postville, Iowa). Together these groups met with representatives of AgriProcessors early Sunday afternoon to demand that the company respond to the needs of its former employees by creating an emergency fund. Aaron Goldsmith, a businessman associated with the plant, reported that 360 of the employees have been paid money owed to them, and that the company has been delivering food to about 30 of the affected families.
Nekessa Opoti is the publisher of kenyaimagine.com, a Kenyan online magazine and newspaper.
All photos ©2008 Nekessa Opoti.