Community / Faith / Pluralistic World

Postville I: Undocumented Workers, Immigration & Justice.

Everything changed for Postville on a morning in May.

At 10 a.m., immigration agents descended en masse upon the tiny Iowa town. They arrived in buses, vans, and helicopters to carry out what would become the largest immigration raid in American history.

On May 12, 2008, in an operation involving at least 900 agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided Agriprocessors, Inc., which was then the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the U.S. Before the raid, Agriprocessors employed 968 workers, most of whom were Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants.

In the hours following the arrests of 389 slaughterhouse employees, spouses and children of detained workers flooded the sanctuary of nearby St. Bridget’s Catholic Church. They stayed for days, waiting for news, sleeping on pews.
Almost a fifth of the town’s population of 2,273 had been swept up in the raid. Some families fled in fear. Others waited anxiously in church pews. The town’s residents reeled in its wake.

But the raid was only the beginning.

Despite its small size and relatively obscure location, Postville was no stranger to change and upheaval. In 1987, it faced a drastic cultural chasm when a group of Hasidic Lubavitch Jews from Brooklyn bought an unused meat-rendering plant just outside the town. Agriprocessors, Inc., was formed, and a kosher empire was born.

As the ultra-Orthodox Luvavitcher population grew and the kosher slaughterhouse thrived, the town of Postville was forced to adapt to the presence of new arrivals. Power struggles emerged in the wake of the schism between the town’s original residents and the burgeoning Jewish population that soon followed the owners of its newest business.

When Aaron Rubashkin, a Brooklyn butcher, bought the defunct HyGrade meat-processing plant in the late ‘80s, the town was financially destitute. Soon, though, Agriprocessors became a huge international success, Postville’s Jewish population surged, and Postville’s financial prospects seemed brighter than ever.

But there were problems. The town’s new Hasidic residents kept to themselves; they had little interest in integration with their new neighbors. Suspicions and anti-Semitism flared amongst the Iowans, who were unused to the foreign traditions and language of the Hasidim. They swept through town in broad-brimmed hats, long black coats and full beards. They seemed indifferent, even contemptuous to local traditions.

According to Stephen Bloom, a journalist who wrote an account of the culture clash in Postville, by the late ‘80s the town “had more rabbis per capita than any other city in the United States, perhaps the world.”

As the Lubavitchers bought more real estate and began to have an impact on the town’s finances, many longtime Postville residents began to feel marginalized. As tensions mounted, the Jewish residents responded by becoming more isolationist.

The power struggle between the two groups culminated in a referendum for the town to annex the land on which the plant stood. This would allow the town of Postville to tax the increasingly successful business just outside its perimeter. Agriprocessors was growing, opening factories all over the U.S. and taking over an increasing share of the kosher meat market.

Sholom Rubashkin, Aaron’s son and the CEO of Agriprocessors, threatened to leave the community if the factory were incorporated. But the referendum passed, the slaughterhouse was incorporated into Postville, and the Lubavitchers did not leave. The town achieved an uneasy cultural equilibrium.

In the meantime, the Eastern European immigrants who had made up the majority of Agriprocessors’ workforce were gradually replaced by Hispanic immigrants. An influx of Mexicans and Guatemalans steadily settled in Postville to work at the slaughterhouse, bringing families with them.

By the time of the 2008 raid, many local Hispanic families had called Postville home for years, even decades. Postville had become a town of unusual diversity in the rural Iowan landscape.

In 2003, longstanding ethical concerns about the operation of the slaughterhouse gained prominence when PETA wrote a letter to Agriprocessors, threatening them with exposure of what they alleged to be violations of both “common decency” and Jewish law in conjunction with Agriprocessors’ questionable brand of ritual slaughter. A year later, PETA posted a graphic undercover video taken at the plant that allegedly showed animal cruelty. In a concurrent USDA investigation of the factory, it became clear that the slaughterhouse had violated animal cruelty laws.

The USDA report, which wasn’t released until 2006, indicated, among other things, that inspectors, rather than stopping the inhumane practices, took bribes from company managers. In 2006 USDA issued Agriprocessors a warning detailing the problems at the plant.

While the Rubashkins challenged the charges of animal cruelty, they faced a confrontation on another front—Agriprocessors employees in a Brooklyn plant voted to unionize.

This push to unionize grew out of a larger dissatisfaction among workers at Agriprocessors factories. For years, employees at many Agriprocessors plants, including the one in Postville, had alleged serious workplace safety problems, ranging from the hiring of underage workers to unpaid overtime and dangerous working conditions that produced serious injuries. Their complaints produced few results.

Agriprocessors refused to bargain with the workers pushing to unionize, arguing that the illegal immigrant status of many of the workers rendered their vote invalid. As the conflict over unionization raged in Brooklyn, a 2006 investigation by an independent commission of rabbis found a number of troublesome cases of worker mistreatment at Agriprocessors plants, including favoritism, poor training, and unsafe conditions.

The struggle to unionize ended in Brooklyn when the National Labor Relations Board ordered that Agriprocessors honor the vote. But in Iowa, a similar attempt by the United Food and Commercial Workers was having little luck in unionizing workers in Postville. The push for unionization in Iowa came on the heels of lawsuits from former local employees, who claimed they were not paid for overtime.

When Agriprocessors was served with a spate of Social Security Administration no-match letters in 2007 for its Postville employees, it forwarded them to its workers, who were asked to reconcile their records or lose their jobs. After the records were reconciled, workers would allegedly have to work their way back up the pay scale, starting again at minimum wage.

In response to the prospect of starting at the bottom again, and unhappy with working conditions, Postville workers staged a walkout. The walkout accomplished little.

It wasn’t until March 2008 that Iowa Occupational Health and Safety issued a press release describing 39 violations of safety and health at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville. It issued a $182,000 fine.

In the evidence that came to light in a Senate hearing on OSHA violations, it became clear that within a five year period Postville’s OSHA log revealed no less than 20 violations. Between the years of 2001 and 2006, the logs recorded five amputations, along with dozens of other severe injuries—broken bones, eye injuries, and hearing loss.

It was in this context—amid the tangled web of workplace violations, union battles and animal cruelty allegations—that the crippling Postville immigration raid swept up almost 400 employees at the slaughterhouse on the morning of May 12.

While family members of arrested workers crowded St. Bridget’s sanctuary, detainees were shackled and bused to the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, a cattle fairground that became both a temporary detention center and the site of makeshift courtrooms for swiftly-held trials and sentencing hearings.

Cameras were not allowed inside the compound. But in an essay about the experience of serving as an official translator for the proceedings, Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor at Florida International University, described the scene:
Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10.

Several dozen were released to await their trial with ankle monitors, to care for children for whom they were the sole providers. Detained women were held in nearby county jails. The men slept in cots in a gymnasium at the 60-acre Cattle Congress, where scores of ICE agents and U.S. Marshalls had set up trailers alongside Homeland Security buses. Overnight, the Cattle Congress had become a hive of activity.

The arrested workers all waived their right to be indicted by a grand jury. Most begged to be deported as quickly as possible, because they had families to support back home.

Instead of being charged with the usual administrative violations, though, Agriprocessors workers were instead charged with “aggravated identity theft,” a serious crime. They were offered a uniform plea agreement in which they could choose between a few possibilities: They could plead guilty to the charge of knowingly using a false Social Security number, thereby avoiding a heftier charge of aggravated identity theft, and serve 5 months in jail before being deported. Or they could plead not guilty, and wait six to eight months for a trial—without the possibility of bail, because of their immigrant status. If they pleaded not guilty, and if they won their case, they would almost certainly spend more time in jail awaiting trial than if they pleaded guilty. If they lost at trial, they would run the risk of an additional two-year sentence. Either way, they would be deported.

According to Camayd-Freixas, many of the workers didn’t know what a Social Security card was, or what it was for. He said many immigrants—many of them illiterate in both Spanish and English—did not know the difference between a Social Security card and a green card. They said they had bought false documents from smugglers in Postville, or gotten them directly from supervisors at the Agriprocessors plant. Most did not know that the original cards could belong to Americans and legal immigrants, Camayd-Freixas said.

Most, he said, were simply consumed with fear for their children and families back home, like one interviewee he described in detail:
The client, a Guatemalan peasant afraid for his family, spent most of that time weeping at our table, in a corner of the crowded jailhouse visiting room. How did he come here from Guatemala? “I walked.” What? “I walked for a month and ten days until I crossed the river.” We understood immediately how desperate his family’s situation was. He crossed alone, met other immigrants, and hitched a truck ride to Dallas, then Postville, where he heard there was sure work. He slept in an apartment hallway with other immigrants until employed. He had scarcely been working a couple of months when he was arrested.

When ICE examined the Social Security numbers of Agriprocessors employees in the process of obtaining a warrant, 147 of the “no-match” numbers came up as “invalid”—Social Security numbers that were never issued to a person. Numbers that were simply made up. Other no-match numbers were valid, but in the 697 cases of non-matching Social Security numbers, only one coincided with a reported identity theft.

In four days’ time, appearing before judges 10 at a time, 297 workers accepted the plea agreement and were summarily shipped off to jail.

The legal storm began brewing even before the flurry of trials had ended.

It turned out that a “legal blueprint” for the fast-track trials had been prepared well ahead of time, a 117-page compilation of scripts that laid out, in painstaking detail, the hearings that would take place in the crush following the raid. One immigration lawyer, Lucas Guttentag, called it a “guilty plea machine.” Rockne Cole, a defense lawyer who received the scripts on the day of the raid from the prosecutors, walked out in disgust and refused to represent any arrested immigrants.
“What I found most astonishing,” he later wrote, “is that apparently Chief Judge Reade had already ratified these deals prior to one lawyer even talking to his or her client.

Questioned, too, were the uniform 5-month sentences imposed upon immigrants who took the plea agreement. The discretionary sentence for the lesser charge alone was zero to six months. The plea agreement placed defendants solidly on the high end of the scale. Without the greater charge of aggravated identity theft looming over their heads, with its mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison, most defendants would have been deported immediately with only probation.
But the raid, devastating in its consequences to Postville and its local Agriprocessors employees, had an unexpected side effect: It brought to light longstanding charges of abysmal working conditions that had gone largely unnoticed for years.

On May 27, Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, delivered a letter to Aaron Rubashkin demanding federal minimum wages, ethical workplace standards, and worker safety. It was signed by hundreds of American kosher meat consumers, 200 rabbis, principals, educators, and other community leaders.

From there it was all downhill for the Agriprocessors empire.

Labor Ready, a temp firm hired to fill the worker void, pulled 100 of its employees from the factory because of safety concerns. Postville began a sharp economic decline. Crime increased drastically.

In July, immigrants still living in Postville told their stories to members of the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Former workers—some still awaiting trial with ankle monitors—told of unpaid overtime, sexual abuse by supervisors, and injuries on the job. Joe Baca, a member of the Congressional delegation, referred to the raid and subsequent criminal charges as a “kangaroo court.”

Iowa Governor Chet Culver compared pre-raid conditions at the Postville plant to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in a guest column for the Des Moines Register:
Alarming information about working conditions at the Postville plant—including allegations ranging from the use of child labor in prohibited jobs to sexual and physical abuse by supervisors; from the nonpayment of regular and overtime wages to the denial of immediate medical attention for workplace injuries—brought to national attention by the raid forces me to believe that, in contrast to our state’s overall economic-development strategy, this company’s owners have deliberately chosen to take the low road in its business practices.

PETA released a third video from inside the Agriprocessors plant in September. And on September 9, 2008, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office charged Agriprocessors with more than 9,000 child labor law violations, naming Aaron Rubashkin, Sholom Rubashkin, and several human resources employees.

By late fall, Postville landlords began evicting tenants. The town of Postville was in such dire economic straits that many organizations collected donations for their support. Sholom Rubashkin, out on bail for the initial charges of conspiring in immigration-related offenses, was re-arrested on charges of multi-million dollar bank fraud. This time there was no bail.

In November, a new grand jury indictment was unsealed for Agriprocessors, Many of the plant’s management, including Sholom Rubashkin, faced new charges related to immigration and document fraud. Postville Mayor Bob Penrod asked the Iowa Governor’s Office to declare his town a human and economic disaster area.

Finally, Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy. Company trucks were repossessed. Paulauan and Somali immigrants who had begun to trickle into the town to work at the factory left. The assets of two major rental companies owned by Agriprocessors were taken over by banks. And despite a federal grant the town received in late November, the money was not enough to keep businesses afloat, and the town’s rental-housing market collapsed.
Postville is becoming a ghost town.

Copyright © 2010 Ruth Defoster


Editor’s note: The facts and quotes included in this piece are all readily available in the public record. Though this is not the entire story (details about Agriprocessors have continued to appear in the news), this report covers the story of the undocumented workers. Part II will appear in the next Critique, complete with questions for discussion and reflection.