Dispatches from the Workplace: Bishops Lead the Cry to Stop Workplace Raids

On December 12, 2006, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) undertook the largest workplace raids in its history, simultaneously descending upon six different small towns in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Iowa, and Minnesota, detaining 1,217 workers from Swift & Co. meatpacking plants.

The churches and social services in these communities responded quickly and humanely by providing support for abandoned children and families and seeking legal assistance for workers. The religious community bore the brunt of the humanitarian response to the government’s commando-style foray.

The next huge raid took place in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on March 6 of this year, in which 300 workers at the Michael Bianco Inc. leather goods factory were arrested. Again, the religious community responded quickly and compassionately, and publicly decried the treatment of the immigrants.

On May 12 of this year (as I discussed in a previous column), ICE conducted the largest single-workplace raid in U.S. history at Agriprocessors, a Kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, that had previously been the subject of concerns in the Jewish community about the treatment of workers. The 389 workers swooped up in the raid were offered catch-22-esque options: they could plead guilty to knowingly using a false Social Security number and the government would withdraw the more serious charge of “aggravated identity theft.” By pleading guilty, they would serve five months in jail and be deported without a hearing. If they pleaded not guilty, they could wait in jail for six to eight months for a trial without the right to bail. If they won at trial, they would be deported. If they lost, they would go to jail for at least two years, and then be deported. When workers realized they would never get their jobs back, they began talking about the real working conditions in the plant. This fall, the Iowa State’s Attorney General filed 9,000 child labor charges against the company – not 9, not 900, but 9,000.

Once again, the religious community responded to the Postville raid in prompt and humane fashion. Churches worked long and hard in support of the workers and then, with Jewish and other leaders, organized a protest a couple months later to bring to light the atrocious treatment of the workers and the community.

But it wasn’t enough: ICE struck again. Yet again making raid-quota history for the single largest workplace raid in U.S. history, on August 25, ICE shackled and took into custody 592 immigrant workers in Laurel, Mississippi, at an electrical equipment factory. The company, Howard Industries, was in the midst of difficult contract negotiations. What better way to demoralize workers than to have 575 of your colleagues hauled off by ICE? The plant is located in the middle of nowhere. The nearest church of any size is Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Laurel, Mississippi. Once again, it responded quickly and compassionately. Once again, it was overwhelmed with community needs.

Well, enough is enough. On September 10, Bishop John C. Wester, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and President Bush to reexamine the use of worksite enforcement raids as an immigrant enforcement tool. “The humanitarian costs of these raids are immeasurable and unacceptable in a civilized society,” Bishop Wester wrote. “While we do not question the right and duty of our government to enforce the law, we do question whether worksite enforcement raids are the most effective and humane method for performing this duty, particularly as they are presently being implemented.”

Almost nine months earlier, the American Friends Service Committee issued a statement calling the workplace raids “excessive and inhumane,” and urged the Bush administration “to work with Congress to develop fair and rational immigration policies instead.”

On October 7, the religious support for a rational immigration program and clear opposition to workplace raids took a new step forward with the establishment of the North Carolina Religious Coalition for Justice for Immigrants. Demonstrating the breadth and diversity of religious concern about immigration and workplace raids, the five speakers at the group’s founding press conference in Raleigh were the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, Imam Oliver Muhammad of the As Salaam Islamic Center of Raleigh, the Rev. Cookie Santiago of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Rabbi Eric Solomon of Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh.

My organization, Interfaith Worker Justice, has repeatedly condemned the raids and urged the administration to take a new approach to immigration reform.

Whoever becomes our next president should stop the workplace raids. They are a waste of federal enforcement staff who could be better utilized enforcing wage and hour laws, building bridges, or doing something constructive. Workplace raids create chaos for workers’ families and rip apart small communities like Postville and Laurel. In the absence of a comprehensive immigration reform policy, workplace raids are merely attempts to prove how tough on immigrants the administration is. The real test of toughness, however, is working out a rational solution to the challenges of immigration in the midst of a crumbling economy.

The Bishops are right. Workplace raids have failed. They should be stopped.