As members of Congress, we have traveled to remote corners of the world and had our eyes opened to some of the worst human suffering imaginable -- abject poverty, meager wages, poor working conditions, paltry access to legal counsel and a jarring lack of fairness in the courts.
We never imagined that we would witness the same injustices in a small American town just a five-hour drive from Chicago.
During a visit to Postville, Iowa, last weekend, site of the May 12 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid of the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, we saw firsthand how a broken Immigration system devastates a small town.
Mothers bound to electronic bracelets were allowed neither to work nor to return to their home countries, leaving them without recourse to pay rent or feed their children. Wives and children -- many of them U.S. citizens -- were left to wonder where their husbands and fathers had been taken, or where they would go next. To this day, more than half of the wives do not know where their husbands are.
Meanwhile, a 16-year-old boy spoke of working 17-hour shifts, six days a week, without overtime on the kill floor of a meatpacking plant. Women from the slaughterhouse spoke of male supervisors demanding sex in return for decent hours, decent pay and decent treatment on the job. These workers were victimized, only to be herded like animals when ICE swept the plant and left their employers without punishment.
There is no mistaking that these men and women are suffering at the hands of the U.S. government and our president. Our broken Immigration system has paved a way to the objectification of human beings at the expense of our labor laws, U.S. workers' safety and basic family values.
Instead of taking a stand against the outright victimization of workers -- many of them minors, and all of them legally entitled to labor protections -- the Bush administration decided that meatpackers posed a greater threat to our security than suspected terrorists or physically abusive employers.
Almost two years to the day before the administration sent 900 ICE agents to storm Agriprocessors, President George W. Bush appeared before the American people and declared: "We're a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. We're also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time."
Postville has plainly shown that we are neither of those things. We are not "lawful" when we interrupt investigations spearheaded by our own Department of Labor. We are not lawful when we implement fear tactics and deportation-only policies simply to score cheap political points with conservative pundits. We are not lawful when we railroad men and women through the judicial process, without adequate representation or a full understanding of their rights.
We are certainly not "welcoming" when hardworking mothers and fathers are prohibited from raising their U.S. citizen children in the country of their birth, or when those who work the longest hours at the most undesirable jobs are treated like terrorists, simply for waking up and going to work.
There is no other reasonable response than to demand that Bush remember his words of welcome and his commitment to law, by placing a moratorium on Immigration raids until we have passed effective, comprehensive reform. The nation that we love, respect and serve is better than this. Bush stood before the American people and proclaimed:
"An Immigration reform bill needs to be comprehensive, because all elements of this problem must be addressed together, or none of them will be solved at all."
But headline-grabbing tactics like the Postville raid had nothing to do with comprehensive reform. Bush has forgotten his promise.
No one benefits when taxpayers pay $590,000 a month to jail Postville's detainees. As a society, we fail when our factories are less safe, when the perpetrators go uncharged or when our laws remove infants from nursing mothers and create broken homes for U.S. citizen children.
We can all agree that we need Immigration reform that is tough on enforcement. However, any system which fails to respect the enormous contributions immigrants make to our workforce, that fails to reflect our proud history of welcoming those who seek a better life and that fails to protect all U.S. workers and our homeland, fails the American people.
The Postville raid failed our nation on all three of those levels. Any future raid would be equally and profoundly inexcusable and cause yet another avoidable blight on our history.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez