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Immigration Raid Jars a Small Town

According to an affidavit filed by an ICE agent in conjunction with this week's arrests, 76 percent of the 968 employees on the company's payroll over the last three months of 2007 used false or suspect Social Security numbers. The affidavit cited unnamed sources who alleged that some company supervisors employed 15-year-olds, helped cash checks for workers with fake documents, and pressured workers without documents to purchase vehicles and register them in other names.

In addition, the affidavit alleged that company supervisors ignored a report of a methamphetamine drug lab operating in the plant. It also cited a case in which a supervisor blindfolded a Guatemalan worker and allegedly struck him with a meat hook, without serious injury.

Agriprocessors has faced other troubles, as well. In 2006, it paid a $600,000 settlement to the Environmental Protection Agency to resolve wastewater pollution problems, and this March it was assessed $182,000 in fines for 39 state health, safety and labor violations. In 2004, the U.S. Agriculture Department's inspector general accused the company of "acts of inhumane slaughter" after animal rights advocates publicized an unauthorized video of a stumbling, dying cow, and some Jewish groups attacked its worker practices.

And last month, the company lost a federal appellate court battle over whether it could ignore a vote by workers at its Brooklyn distribution center to unionize, on grounds that those in favor were illegal immigrants and not entitled to federal labor protections.

"This employer has a long history of violating every law that's out there -- labor laws, environmental laws, now immigration laws," said Mark Lauritsen, international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has waged a bitter battle to organize the Postville plant. The union charged that the immigration raid disrupted a separate U.S. Labor Department investigation into alleged child labor law violations and other infractions.

ICE may be "deporting 390 witnesses" to the labor investigation, Lauritsen said, adding, "This administration seems to place a larger value on big, splashy shows in this immigration raid than in vigorously enforcing other labor laws."

In November, Sholom Rubashkin, company vice president and the founder's son, wrote a letter to customers decrying "a slanderous and patently false campaign" by the union, and defending the company's record and its products as "safe and wholesome." After this week's raid, the family released brief statements expressing its sympathies to workers, commitment to customers and cooperation with authorities.

Chaim Abrahams, a company representative, said Agriprocessors is working to "bolster our compliance efforts to employ only properly documented employees" and has launched an independent investigation into the circumstances that led to the raid.

The blitz, which occurred after a 16-month investigation, began with helicopters, buses and vans encircling the western edge of town at 10 a.m. Witnesses said hundreds of agents surrounded the plant in 10 minutes, began interviewing workers and seized company records.

By early afternoon, illegal immigrants began arriving by bus at the National Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo, Iowa, about 75 miles from Postville. ICE held 313 male suspects at an exhibit hall and 76 female suspects in local jails for administrative violations of immigration law.

Those arrested include 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, 2 Israelis and 4 Ukrainians, according to the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Iowa.

Eighteen were juveniles who have been released or turned over for refugee resettlement, and the prosecutor's office would not say if there were underage workers at the plant. Of the adults, 306 face criminal charges for aggravated identity theft and other crimes related to the use of false documents. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the workers on Thursday, meanwhile, accused the government of violating their constitutional rights through arbitrary and indefinite detention.

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