Treated like cattle by ICE

May 14, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on an ICE raid on an Iowa slaughterhouse, where hundreds of workers were arrested--and then hauled off to a makeshift detention center at the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds.

THE LARGEST raid on a single workplace in U.S. history sent shock waves through Northeastern Iowa on May 12--especially in the immigrant community.

In a massive, coordinated effort, witnesses say more than 100 agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stormed into the AgriProcessors Inc. complex in the small town of Postville, at 10 a.m. As government helicopters flew overhead, workers were ordered to stand in two groups--those with identification to the right, and those with other papers to the left.

"There was plenty of hollering," Chuck Larson, a truck driver at the plant, told the Des Moines Register. "You couldn't go anywhere." When the paper asked Larson who was separated out, he said that those standing in the group of people with "other" papers were all Latino.

One detainee, who was facing deportation and wished to remain anonymous, told the Register that several weeks ago, she was told by officials at the plants to make her "papers" look more realistic.

As the raid began, she said, a call came over the loudspeaker, announcing that ICE was in the plant. Workers throughout the plant tried to hide or run away. "Everyone scampered, everyone tried to get away," she said. "Once they knew they couldn't get away, they came down from their hiding places."

A Homeland Security bus loaded with detainees leaves the Agriprocessors Inc. plant where ICE agents arrested more than 300 people in May 2008
A Homeland Security bus loaded with detainees leaves the AgriProcessors plant

Now, the woman said, she's worried she won't be able to send money to her children in Guatemala.

After those without ID were separated out, they were frisked and told to remove any sweaters or heavy garments. Then their wrists were handcuffed, chains were attached to their waists and their feet were cuffed, before they were put on buses for Waterloo, Iowa--to the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds, which federal authorities had leased in advance of the raid in early May for what they told the media would be a "training exercise." Activists now say the grounds are being used as a makeshift processing and detention center.

Retired University of Northern Iowa professor Rosa Maria de Finlay was upset as she approached the gates of the Cattle Congress fairgrounds and was turned away by an agent. De Finlay told the Register that said she had gone to the location several times after she heard about the raid in order to offer her services as a translator.

"I think the money we're spending on all this is incredible," she said. "You and I will never know how much it costs. That money could be used for something else other than this crap."

By Tuesday, authorities said that 390 people had been arrested--and warrants had been issued for about 300 more, mainly on charges of identity theft and other crimes related to the use of fraudulent Green Cards, Social Security numbers and other government documents.

Of those detained so far, authorities say the vast majority are Latino--290 are Guatemalan and more than 90 are Mexican. Federal officials claim that as many as three-quarters of the plant's 1,000-strong workforce are using fraudulent Social Security numbers.

POSTVILLE IS a small town of around 2,500 people. Approximately 1,000 people--mainly immigrants from surrounding communities--work at the AgriProcessors plant, which is the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the U.S. and one of the biggest employers in the state.

The plant was opened in 1987 by members of a local ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community. There is a reported history of tensions between the Jewish community and the town (including some open anti-Semitism which helped lead to a 1997 referendum allowing the town to annex the land that the slaughterhouse was on).

Today, labor activists and others say the plant has a long record of abuses that includes substandard pay, poor working conditions and other violations.

For its part, AgriProcessors claims to be a wonderful employer. In a letter on its Web site in November, the company denounced the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union--which has tried unsuccessfully to organize the plant--for supposedly "'waging economic war on an unorganized company'...

"As part and parcel of this campaign, the UFCW has disseminated inaccurate and false information, which is designed to destroy AgriProcessors, Inc.'s image and inflict economic damage."

According to the UFCW, however, it is AgriProcessors that inflicts damage--on its workers.

A June article posted on the UFCW Local 1776 Web site said AgriProcessors not only engaged in inhumane slaughtering practices (covered up, according to a USDA Inspector General's report, by "gifts" to federal Food Safety Inspection Service meat inspectors), but a wide range of abuses against its largely immigrant workforce.

According to the UFCW, "The Forward, published in New York City, has documented the substandard working conditions at the AgriProcessors plant in Postville. Workers receive little or no required safety training and have suffered amputations and other serious injuries on the job. Health and safety provisions are lacking. In 2006, the company accounted for more than half of the slaughterhouse complaints submitted to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration from the entire state of Iowa.

"The workers at AgriProcessors are among the lowest-paid in the industry. They do not receive proper overtime pay or adequate health care benefits. They are threatened with dismissal if they complain or speak to outsiders. And they are extorted for cash or asked to buy cars from supervisors when they apply for a job.

"Supervisors at AgriProcessors spy on workers who meet with visitors to Postville. They trail people who investigate the company. And they give workers flyers warning them not to talk to outsiders or 'the union devils.' The workers' rights to organize are strongly discouraged and compromised."

Rabbi Morris Allen, who took part in a commission established by the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which traveled to Postville last year to investigate abuse allegations, told the New York Times, "As concerned as we are about how an animal gets killed, we need to be equally concerned about how a worker lives. We need to be certain that the food we are obligated to eat is produced in a way that demonstrates concern for those who produce it."

Father Paul Ouderkirk, of St. Bridget's Catholic Church in Postville, told the Register that when he toured the AgriProcessors facility in 2002, "It was one of the dirtiest plants I've been in...The pace was fast. They had no place where people could sit down and eat, only a room about the size of (a 15-by-15-foot area) where they crowded in."

RATHER THAN protect the rights of these vulnerable workers, however, federal authorities seem to have used the allegations of workplace abuse as an excuse to justify the raid.

In the warrant allowing the raid, officials described an incident in which a supervisor covered the eyes of an employee with duct tape and struck him with a meat hook. According to the Register, "The worker...declined to report the incident for fear of losing his job, the warrant said."

Another worker allegedly told federal officials that undocumented workers were paid just $5 an hour for their first few months of work, before receiving a raise to $6 an hour--well under Iowa's legal minimum wage of $7.25.

That these allegations could be used as a pretense to round up and potentially deport hundreds of workers, rather than crack down on workplace abuses--in an industry that is notorious for such practices--shows how far the federal government will sink in scapegoating immigrants.

As David Goodner, an activist with the University of Iowa Campus Antiwar Network, pointed out on his blog at the Des Moines Register, "Guatemala is one of the most impoverished countries in the Western Hemisphere and has been a survivor of economic and military rape by the United States for decades. Free trade agreements like NAFTA overwhelmingly benefit multinational corporations at the expense of ordinary, everyday workers across the world.

"If capital knows no nationality and can move across borders in search of profit, then the workers of the world also have every right to move across borders in search of livable wages and dignified work."

For now, the raid in Postville has created a wave of fear in the immigrant community in the area.

Anna Lopez, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said many Latinos in Waterloo were scared of appearing in public for fear of being seized by ICE. "They're under the bed hiding," she told the Register.

"I am afraid there's nothing I can do," said Kim Berger, who waited outside the Cattle Congress grounds after the raid for information about family members and friends.

But in an inspiring demonstration of support, as many as 200 protesters--including many high school students--turned out late Monday at the gates of the fairgrounds to demand the release of the detainees. They chanted, "ICE go home," "We are with you" and "We have rights," while waving signs that said, "Honk for Human Rights."

"We work hard, we stay out of trouble, and they want to take us away?" Cesar Bravo, a high school student, told the Waterloo Courier. "When they hit Tama (County) in a raid, they took my uncle. They ruin our families."

As student Veronica Retuer-Villagrana added, "We come here to work, not be criminals."

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