Advocates say raid continues to cause suffering
By David Pitt
DES MOINES, Iowa — Religious leaders and immigration reform advocates claim the human suffering caused by a raid on a Postville, Iowa, meatpacking plant continues and officials are ignoring the problem.
The May 12 raid at Agriprocessors Inc., the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant, has left dozens of women unable to work and support their children, forcing them to rely on handouts from local churches, several people said this week during a conference call arranged by the immigration reform group America’s Voice.
"These conditions clearly violate core human and religious values of our country," said Gideon Aronoff, CEO of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 389 workers at the plant. About 300 pleaded guilty and were sentenced on federal charges. Most were charged with using a false identification or incorrect Social Security numbers.
As a humanitarian gesture, authorities released arrested workers who would be the only remaining caretakers for children. Currently, 42 women and two men must remain in the small northeast Iowa town of Postville and wear ankle bracelets that allow federal officials to track their movement. Among them are 80 children.
"It was to make sure someone was there to take care of family members," said Bob Teig, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the northern district of Iowa.
But those parents can’t work because of their immigration status, leaving them with no way to earn money to pay the rent or buy groceries. They are stuck in Postville waiting for deportation, relying solely on volunteer contributions of food and money through local churches.
Immigration reform advocates complained that the current system relies too heavily on raids, detention, criminal prosecution and deportation.
"This enforcement-only approach creates massive human suffering, separation of families and economic dislocation," said Aronoff, of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The Rev. Stephen P. Brackett, of St. Paul Lutheran Church said the raid set Postville back 15 years.
When the plant first opened most of its workers were single immigrant men with no intention of settling in Postville. They moved to town, worked at the plant long enough to save some money and moved on. There were frequent fights and increased crime.
Through the years, more workers relocated their families to Postville, bought homes and enrolled their children in schools. Some families uprooted by the raid have lived in town for more than a decade, he said.
The May raid occurred during the plant’s first shift, which affected mostly families, Brackett said.
Agriprocessors Inc. has turned to rapid recruitment again to fill the vacant jobs, which has meant an influx again of single immigrant men.
"Crime is on the rise again. We’ve had several bar fights with new workers and at least one drug arrest," Brackett said.
With the deportation of the families, Postville schools have lost half of their elementary school students, Brackett said. He said hundreds of people have left the community and many more will be deported.
"This method of enforcement does little to deal with the problem of immigration," he said. "We desperately need to hold employers accountable rather than have undocumented workers bear the brunt of illegal immigration."
Representatives of Jewish groups also criticized work conditions at the Postville plant that were alleged in a federal search warrant.
"Their conditions that were documented were clearly contrary to Jewish values," said Rosalind Spigel, acting director of New York-based Jewish Labor Committee.
After the May raid, the group asked Agriprocessors to adhere to their religious values. The group, along with other Jewish organizations, has asked consumers to look for alternate kosher meat products.
Rabbi Morris Allen, who leads Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., a conservative synagogue for more than 400 families near St. Paul, has been critical of the production practices at Agriprocessors since 2006.
Allen, who is leading an effort to create a new kosher ethical certification called Hekhsher Tzedek, said the company could have avoided the May raids had it implemented recommendations made by him and others nearly two years ago.
"It is clear they were aware of serious issues of health, safety, wages being shorted ... all sorts of management practices and which they never made an attempt to change," he said. "Ultimately, for me as a Jew, it’s not profits with an "s" that matter, it’s being consistent with the voice of the prophets with a "ph" that ultimately is what’s going to speak to who we are as a people."