Immigration Raid Jars a Small Town

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

POSTVILLE, Iowa -- Antonio Escobedo ran to get his wife Monday when he saw a helicopter circling overhead and immigration agents approaching the meatpacking plant where they both work. The couple hid for hours inside the plant before obtaining refuge in the pews and hall at St. Bridget's Catholic Church, where hundreds of other Guatemalan and Mexican families gathered, hoping to avoid arrest.

"I like my job. I like my work. I like it here in Iowa," said Escobedo, 38, an illegal immigrant from Yescas, Mexico, who has raised his three children for 11 years in Postville. "Are they mad because I'm working?"

Monday's raid on the Agriprocessors plant, in which 389 immigrants were arrested and many held at a cattle exhibit hall, was the Bush administration's largest crackdown on illegal workers at a single site. It has upended this tree-lined community, which calls itself "Hometown to the World." Half of the school system's 600 students were absent Tuesday, including 90 percent of Hispanic children, because their parents were arrested or in hiding.

Current and former officials of the Department of Homeland Security say its raid on the largest employer in northeast Iowa reflects the administration's decision to put pressure on companies with large numbers of illegal immigrant workers, particularly in the meat industry. But its disruptive impact on the nation's largest supplier of kosher beef and on the surrounding community has provoked renewed criticism that the administration is disproportionately targeting workers instead of employers, and that the resulting turmoil is worse than the underlying crimes.

"They don't go after employers. They don't put CEOs in jail," complained the Postville Community Schools superintendent, David Strudthoff, 51, who said the sudden incarceration of more than 10 percent of the town's population of 2,300 "is like a natural disaster -- only this one is manmade."

He added, "In the end, it is the greater population that will suffer and the workforce that will be held accountable."

Congressman Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) said enforcement efforts against corporations that commit immigration violations have "plummeted" under the Bush administration. "Until we enforce our immigration laws equally against both employers and employees who break the law, we will continue to have a problem," he said.

Julie L. Myers, assistant homeland security secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said that to the contrary, the agency has seldom been so aggressive, including opening criminal investigations of company officials. While cases have netted only a handful of sentences for low-level managers so far, Myers said, such white-collar crime investigations typically take years to develop.

"Can we really execute a search warrant without taking any action against [illegal employment] that we know is taking place?" she asked. "Or will just taking business records through a search warrant cause illegal aliens to leave, and then we're not fulfilling that part of the mission, as well?"

Lobbyists and former officials say that in unleashing ICE, the administration is trying to "turn up the pain" to motivate businesses and Congress to support the comprehensive immigration changes sought by President Bush, such as a temporary-worker program and earned legalization. If the existing legal tools are too blunt, they said, Congress should create a fairer system.

But the pressure on employers -- whose wages and hiring practices have lured illegal workers to both large cities and small towns -- has mostly been indirect and economic: While workplace arrests have risen tenfold since 2002, from 510 to 4,940, only 90 criminal arrests have involved company personnel officials.

So far, no officials at Agriprocessors have been charged. The company, founded by Aaron Rubashkin, has a storybook history whose recent chapters have turned murky. After some of Rubashkin's Lubavitch Hasidic family moved here from Brooklyn in 1987, the firm became the nation's largest processor of glatt kosher beef, the strictest kosher standard. It produces kosher and non-kosher beef, veal, lamb, turkey and chicken products under brands such as Iowa Best Beef, Aaron's Best and Rubashkin's.

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