Dispatches from the Workplace: Postville: Ground Zero for the Intersection of Immigrant and Workers’ Rights

Why did Catholics and Jews join forces in Postville, Iowa, on Sunday, July 27? Why did upwards of 1,000 people protest in this rural town of only 2,200? Why is Postville all over the Orthodox Jewish press and in the emails of court interpreters?

Postville, roughly 200 miles northeast of Des Moines, is home to Agriprocessors, Inc, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. No one knows definitively how the company’s workers (not to speak of the animals) have been treated over the years, but the firm’s public relations problems began in 2004 when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a video showing animals in distress being slaughtered at the Postville plant.

Two years later, the issues facing the workers became a concern in the Jewish community. On May 26, 2006, The Jewish Daily Forward published a scathing editorial:

The company’s workers tell a grim tale of long hours, low pay, humiliating treatment by capricious supervisors, dangerous conditions and insufficient safety measures. The workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, spoke to the Forward on condition of anonymity, fearing dismissal or deportation if they were identified. But their stories were backed up with on-the-record testimony and documentation from a host of clergy and community leaders, Iowa academics and union officials. The story they tell is consistent, and shocking.

How AgriProcessors and its owners treat their employees is a matter for federal and Iowa state authorities to judge. We hope someone takes a good, hard look at conditions in Postville. Given the current state of American labor law, it’s not likely that much will change dramatically for the better. Still, stricter enforcement of existing labor laws will improve some lives.

Purchasers of AgriProcessors’ Kosher meats began switching to alternatives in response to the questions raised about its “kosher” treatment of workers. But then things got worse.

On May 12 of this year, 900 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) staff descended upon the town of Postville to conduct the nation’s largest single workplace raid in history, detaining 389 workers. Most of the detained workers were Guatemalan immigrants who had come to the U.S. seeking work to feed their families and did not have legal papers authorizing them to work. Nonetheless, Agriprocessors, Inc. hired the workers, claiming the company did not know the workers were not authorized to work. Most of the immigrants and their families were members of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, the primary Catholic parish in Postville, although some were members of other Protestant churches in town.

The 300 men arrested were put into a gym filled with cots. The women were placed in county jails. According to Erik Camayd-Freixas, a certified interpreter imported to translate for the hearings:

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.

They appeared to be uniformly no more than 5 ft. tall, mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names…. They had all waived their right to be indicted by a grand jury and accepted instead an information or simple charging document by the U.S. Attorney, hoping to be quickly deported since they had families to support back home. But it was not to be. They were criminally charged with “aggravated identity theft” and “Social Security fraud” —charges they did not understand… and, frankly, neither could I.

The ICE Search Warrant Application claimed that 75 percent of Agriprocessors’ 968 employees were illegal immigrants. ICE had 697 arrest warrants, but only arrested 389 workers initially (or 390, depending upon the account), 314 men and 76 women. Most were Guatemalan, but some were Mexican, Ukrainian and Israeli. Some arrested were released on humanitarian grounds, mostly women responsible for children, but 306 workers were held for prosecution. Only 5 workers had any prior criminal record.

Normally, court interpreters maintain neutrality about proceedings, but Professor Camayd-Freixas was so appalled by what he witnessed that he felt compelled to break his silence. “A line was crossed at Postville,” he wrote in a moving personal account of what he observed. (Read the entire account here.)

The heart of the matter is the “fast-tracking” of a uniform Plea Agreement that the government offered to these “criminals” – workers whose only real crime was working without proper authorization in order to feed their families. Until fairly recently, if a worker was found to be working in the country without proper authorization, the worker would simply be deported. In Postville, workers who were desperate to support their families weren’t given that option. They were told they had three 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, the worker 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 the worker won at trial, he or she would be deported. If the worker lost, he or she would go to jail for at least two years, and then be deported. This Plea offer was only available for seven days, so workers and advocates were crunched for time.

Prof. Camayd-Freixas described one interview with a Guatemalan peasant who walked for a month and ten days to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in search of work to support his family. Eventually he got to Postville, where he had heard there was work. He worked just a few months before his arrest. This worker, like most he interviewed, did not really understand what a Social Security number was. He certainly wasn’t trying to steal someone else’s credit. He was supporting his children, wife, mother and sister. When interviewed, he wept.

The day after the arrests, Postville was in chaos. Families took refuge at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church. A third of the elementary and middle-school children were absent from school, traumatizing both immigrant children and their native-born friends alike. Released mothers wore ankle GPS monitors, but had no income to provide for their children. Many children were citizens, but their parents were not, meaning the families would be torn asunder.

Once the workers were locked up, with no chance of getting their jobs back, they were no longer fearful of talking about their working conditions – they had nothing more to lose. The New York Times reported on a young Guatemalan who started working on the plant’s killing floor working 17-hour shifts, six days a week, and not consistently paid overtime. If even half of what the workers claim is true, Agriprocessors, Inc. is no better than what Upton Sinclair described in The Jungle. Workers reported that children were working with dangerous knives for long hours, women were sexually harassed, and the employer routinely stole wages from workers by not paying them for overtime hours. If all this weren’t enough, the workers complained that the supervisors yelled at them, sometimes hit them, and one worker complained of a supervisor blindfolding him with duct tape and then hitting him with a meat hook.

Local religious leaders scrambled to provide support and assistance to immigrant families. Jewish activists expressed their outrage by organizing a boycott of Agriprocessors, Inc. Within a few weeks, hundreds of rabbis and Jewish organizations signed a letter condemning both the company’s treatment of the workers and the government’s commando-style terrorizing of a community.

On Sunday, July 27, hundreds of concerned citizens, led primarily by Jewish social action organizations like the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Minneapolis-St. Paul-based Jewish Community Action, joined local religious leaders for a city-wide march in Postville. Rally speakers called for an end to the workplace raids that tear small communities apart and terrorize workers, a rational immigration reform package that will create a path to citizenship for hard-working immigrants who have shown themselves to be loving friends and neighbors, a fair and open judicial process for anyone charged with a crime (as opposed to the Postville-style expedited abuse of justice), and just treatment of all workers regardless of immigration status.

Rabbi Robert Marx, a retired rabbi living in Michigan, rode for eight hours to participate in the rally. “Our protest represents a magnificent interfaith effort to secure both fair labor standards at the plant and to demand justice for the workers who were rudely and unjustly arrested. I call upon the government to enforce fair labor laws as strenuously as it seems devoted to enforcing immigration laws.”

A year ago, Jena, Louisiana became synonymous with racism and the unresolved issues in the society over how young African Americans are treated in schools and the courts. Today, Postville symbolizes the unresolved and interconnected issues of immigration and justice for workers. These issues are made particularly poignant by the Kosher status of the offending workplace. The battle unfolding in America’s heartland touches all plant workers who have experienced deteriorating wages and benefits (due to declining unionization rates and reduced inspections by government oversight agencies), and challenges religious communities to respond to both the criminalization of immigrants and unethical working conditions.

Postville not only illustrates the insanity of the current punitive and mean-spirited immigration policies and the complete abdication of the government enforcement of workplace laws (like paying people for all their hours worked and prohibitions on child labor in slaughterhouses), but it also clarifies the changes needed in national immigration and workplace enforcement policies.

First, the nation needs a rational immigration policy that creates a path to citizenship, reunifies families and protects workers’ rights. Postville’s immigrant workers and their families are integral members of the community. There must be a reasonable way to allow most of them to become citizens.

Second, the ICE-directed workplace raids must stop. The ICE staff was expanded dramatically under the rubric of fighting terrorism. Instead it is terrorizing communities. When Frances Perkins was made Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, the first thing she did was shut down the division, then based at the Department of Labor, that was conducting workplace raids against immigrants. The raids were wrong then. And they’re wrong today.

Third, judicial processes must be open and fair. The United States prides itself on its fair and open process. There was nothing fair and open about how these workers were treated – plead guilty so you can get a mere five months in jail and be deported faster than sitting in jail longer and then being deported. And what was the point of shackling all these workers together and forcing decisions to be made in seven days? The U.S. judicial process can treat people better than this.

Fourth, employers must be required to comply with the nation’s labor laws. Companies like Agriprocessors, Inc. that use child labor, harass and intimidate workers and steal wages from them should be punished in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, there are only 732 investigators in the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, and they’re charged with protecting 130 million workers across the country. Lawbreakers like Agriprocessors, Inc. gamble, often rightly so, that no one is watching.

In Professor Camayd-Freixas’ report, he suggests that one reason ICE has expanded its workplace raids is a desire to justify the expansion of its staff given that it is clearly not rooting out terrorists. Given the woefully inadequate workplace enforcement staff and the bloated ICE staff devoted to workplace raids, perhaps a win-win solution can emerge: transfer all the ICE workplace raid staff over to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, retrain all the staff and then send them out searching for unethical employers who are stealing wages from workers. This approach would stop one problem—workplace raids—and help remedy another—unethical employers stealing wages.

Postville is ground zero for the intersection of immigrant and workers’ rights. Catholics, Jews and most faith traditions in the country have called upon the nation’s leaders to create ethical and humane approaches to immigration and protect workers’ rights to earn a just living. The scene displayed in Postville of families and congregations torn apart and workers exploited at their jobs is not one that should be replicated. No more Jenas. No more Postvilles.