Undocumented immigrants are criminals but law-breaking employers should get off scot free -- at least, that seems to be the position of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The federal agency has come under fire from community groups and unions following its May raid on an Iowa kosher meatpacking plant.
In the largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history, ICE detained 389 workers, mainly Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, from the Postville Agriprocessors plant. Federal prosecutors went on to press criminal charges related to identity theft against 306 of them.
The raid is the most glaring example of ICE operating as a "rogue agency," said Scott Frotman, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which was trying to organize the plant. ICE's actions not only halted the UFCW's drive but also disrupted an Iowa Department of Labor (DOL) investigation into abuses at the plant.
Worried that ICE was preparing a raid on Agriprocessors, UFCW Vice President Mark Lauritsen sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security in early May requesting ICE not interfere with ongoing DOL investigations. Though the agency has a policy not to obstruct other government bodies, ICE ignored the letter.
UFCW claims ICE actions hamper union activity by intimidating potential members. The union sued the agency in 2007 following similar raids at five Swift meatpacking plants where the union has members.
Lauritsen noted that the Postville arrests amounted to eliminating hundreds of witnesses to labor violations at the plant.
Ironically, the raid did bring proof of allegations against Agriprocessors. Of the raid's detainees, 29 were underage. Three months after the raid, the Iowa DOL released a report detailing 57 child labor violations at the Postville plant -- including children as young as 13 working on the kill floor -- and has recommended the state prosecute the company.
Plant 'a Nightmare'
The child labor violations are only a fraction of what Postville workers have endured, according to UFCW, which has been trying to organize the plant since 2005 with little success.
"Workers' rights are a nightmare," said Doug Mork, organizing director for UFCW Local 789 in Minneapolis. "Wages are extraordinarily low, basic worker safety and protection is miserable.
"It's intensified by the immigration situation, by the fact that this employer was able to come up with a more vulnerable workforce and abuse it over the long haul."
UFCW has alleged that one worker had his eyes duct-taped by a supervisor and was beaten with a meat hook. The worker did not come forward for fear of losing his job. Workers have also reported being bullied into buying cars and renting apartments from company agents.
"The company suppressed every aspect of their life so they were unable to come forward and speak out about the atrocities going on in that plant," Frotman said.
The company's union-busting strategy didn't help, either, said one of the UFCW organizers in Postville.
The organizer said company agents followed UFCW representatives on home visits and made threats against workers they spoke with.
Despite Agriprocessors' bullying, the workers in Postville had struck back.
After the company threatened to dismiss 25 workers based on mismatched Social Security numbers in June 2007, more than 200 workers walked off the morning shift and 50 walked out in the evening.
"They did that on their own," the UFCW organizer said. Agriprocessors fired two walkout instigators, but told other employees to reconcile their papers with a company attorney.
The walkout came a month after workers at the plant had filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, suing for wages owed for the time it takes to get ready and clean up before and after their shifts.
But the May raid quelled further resistance by removing half the Agriprocessors workforce in one day.
Usually those caught in immigration raids are simply deported and not charged as criminals. But ICE wants to look like it's securing the border by deporting criminals, so it rushed through plea bargains with many of those detained. They were given the option of five months in jail and deportation if they pleaded guilty, or a minimum two years in prison if convicted.
ICE forced a mass plea agreement, locked the men up, and sent women with children home with ankle bracelet monitors.
One of the court interpreters for the judicial proceedings, disgusted with the experience, wrote that most of the detainees had little understanding of their legal options.
He likened the makeshift court to a "judicial assembly line where the meatpackers were mass processed."
Meanwhile, Agriprocessors has come up with a fresh immigrant workforce. Following the raid, the company brought in Somali immigrants from Minnesota. They report the same difficult working conditions, as well as short paychecks.
The UFCW organizer in Postville said these workers have a better shot at organizing because they are refugees and thus are in the country legally.
The new workers also have the benefit of heightened community awareness. A thousand people rallied July 27 in Postville -- population 2,500 -- to support those affected by the raid, and to call for immigration reform and protection of workers' rights.
Because Agriprocessors is the largest kosher meat producer in the country, the Jewish community has reacted strongly. Melissa Rudnick of Twin Cities-based Jewish Community Action said concerns about Agriprocessors' violations spawned a new Conservative Jewish program that includes ethical concerns for workers, as well as for the slaughter of animals, in the kosher certification process.
Frotman said the UFCW would continue to organize in Postville because Agriprocessors is a "rogue employer that really does drive down wages and working conditions not only in their plant but, by extension, for all workers."