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.
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.
For now, Postville residents -- immigrants and native-born -- are holding their breath. On Greene Street, where the Hall Roberts' Son Inc. feed store, Kosher Community Grocery and Restaurante Rinconcito Guatemalteco sit side by side, workers fear a chain of empty apartments, falling home prices and business downturns. The main street, punctuated by a single blinking traffic signal, has been quiet; a Guatemalan restaurant temporarily closed; and the storekeeper next door reported a steady trickle of families quietly booking flights to Central America via Chicago.
"Postville will be a ghost town," said Lili, a Ukrainian store clerk who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld.
But Cesar Jochol, 48, a native of Patzun, Guatemala, and owner of a market called Tonita's Express, questioned whether the raid will be a deterrent. People who can afford to eat meat only once or twice a week in Guatemala, while earning $4 a day, can earn $60 a day in Iowa, enough to eat beef or chicken three times a day, he said. "You take away a hundred people. A couple hundred more will come tomorrow; they'll just go to L.A., New York, New Jersey and Miami," said Jochol, a 21-year U.S. resident.
At St. Bridget's Catholic Church, Eduardo Santos, 27, who came from Guatemala and lost two of his fingers working at the factory, said the raid was "fair . . . but it's bad for everybody. There's no work." He plans to go home.
"The problem is, who is going to do the work?" said Stephen G. Bloom, a University of Iowa journalism professor who wrote a 2000 book on the clash of cultures in Postville as Agriprocessors' Lubavitch Jewish leaders gained influence in the mostly Lutheran town. "This is a no-win situation."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.