Meat-Packing Giant Raided by ICE Faces Criminal Investigation

Editor's note: Generally, employers and supervisors face no penalties following immigration raids like that conducted in May in Postville, Iowa. Public attention, and a number of editorials on the issue have set the Agriprocessors case apart. For background on the story, see Enforcement on Steroids: Homeland Security's Emerging Immigration Police State.

The government is upping the ante on investigations into an employer in Postville, Iowa who was raided last month by immigration enforcement authorities.

Agriprocessors, Inc. is now facing much more than the standard stock of immigration violations; they are looking at potentially hundreds of criminal charges that include sexual assault, abuse and child labor violations.

No fewer than seven federal and state agencies are coordinating on investigations of Agriprocessors.

The Iowa Division of Labor Services, the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Equal Employment and Opportunities Commission (EEOC), the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Iowa Attorney General's Office are all either conducting or cooperating on investigations into the plant.

Doris Meissner, a former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute said, "From everything we hear about this, it sounds like the federal government is marshalling all of the authorities that it has in order to bring the broadest set of charges -- and that's what it should be doing. It's a positive sign that they seem to be working with the state attorney general.

However, some of the investigations were initiated before the May raid. The Iowa Division of Labor Services for example had already begun taking a look at the meat-packing plant after Iowa's OSHA office referred the case to them after two of their inspections revealed concerns about wage and child labor issues.

The Division then began working with the U.S. Department of Labor due to the nature of the case. EEOC was involved likely due to potential charges of sexual harassment and assault, which have been alleged by former employees. Additionally, they began sharing information with ICE after the raids, which they did not know were about to happen. ICE investigations are still ongoing and resulted in two arrests of supervisors at the plant last week.

According to lawyers in the case and agency representatives, there are likely to be civil charges related to immigration, wage enforcement, safety and other labor issues which usually result in fines, however, criminal charges related to immigration, child labor and sexual harassment and assault are far more serious and potentially wide reaching. Anyone with "knowledge or intent" of child laborers for instance is subject to criminal prosecution -- in theory this could include management, human resources representatives and owners alike.

"ICE knows this case is huge," said Sonia Parras Konrad, an attorney representing many of the women and children detained in the raids. "This is not about a few undocumented jumping the fence, this is about the ongoing crimes and abuses that these people endured. This will be a real showcase of what can go wrong without a real comprehensive solution to immigration."

The magnitude of the case was echoed by Gail Sheridan-Lucht from the Iowa Division of Labor Services. "A case of this nature would normally be handled by the county's attorney," said Sheridan-Lucht. "However the child labor issues had the county attorney hand it over to the Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller."

Robert Brammer, a spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's office confirms they are assisting the Iowa Division of Labor on possible criminal issues, including numerous child labor violations, around Agriprocessors and have been doing so since April.

While county attorneys have first jurisdiction, Brammer confirms the Attorney General's office was asked to handle the matter. "Immigration issues are not our area, this is about criminal charges," said Brammer.

Agriprocessors is not new to many of these agencies. According to the Des Moines Register, safety, environmental and workplace violations at Agriprocessors have been going on for years.

They also recently reported members of the Rubashkin family (the owners of Agriprocessors) are facing federal charges related to hazardous waste and have past criminal convictions for bank fraud. ICE's own search warrant from the raids in May also cited physical abuse. "In February, Source #7 told ICE agents he or she observed a Jewish floor supervisor duct-tape the eyes of an undocumented Guatemalan worker shut and hit the Guatemalan with a meat hook."

Immigration advocates have responded to the alleged events at Agriprocessors as well. Douglas Rivlin of the National Immigration Forum noted, "If we had a legal immigration system that met the needs of the American economy and we get those here illegally into the system and legal, then workers across the country - and not just immigrants - will be in a much better position to stand up to employers like Agriprocessors, demand better working conditions, or vote with their feet by changing jobs."

A press release on the Agriprocessors Web site stated that: "The company continues to cooperate with the government following the recent workforce immigration enforcement action that led to the management changes. The company is also conducting an independent investigation of the circumstances, which led to enforcement. The company can not respond to specific allegations until that investigation is complete and pending legal issues are resolved."

Agriprocessors also recently launched a public relations campaign by hiring a New York-based firm represents clients ranging from hip-hop stars to Fortune 500 companies. As the world's largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse, the company has placed full-page ads in The Jewish Press. They also have law firms representing them from at least three states including Iowa.

Wendy Feliz Sefsaf is a Washington D.C. based writer with New America Media

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