One year after a federal immigration raid at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse exposed deep flaws in the kosher meat industry, much has changed, but too many injustices remain. In this first year, much of the focus has rightly been on the legal and ethical issues raised by the treatment of animals and workers in the plants that supply meat and poultry to the Jewish community and beyond. But this story has also has exposed egregious behaviors on the part of government prosecutors that ought not go unnoticed or unrestrained.
Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court agrees on one matter that sounds technical but actually goes to the heart of the prosecutorial misconduct. On May 4, all nine high court justices concurred that the government had improperly used a legal tool as a threat in its prosecution of an immigrant worker in a situation similar to that faced by the employees of the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. The fact that all nine justices of this often-divided court sided with an undocumented Mexican immigrant who used forged papers to secure work — hardly a sympathetic defendant — gives an indication of how far the government overreached.
Ignacio Flores-Figueroa did what many undocumented workers do — he bought a bogus Social Security number to gain employment in a steel plant in East Moline, Ill. Unbeknownst to him, the number belonged to someone else and the government charged him with identity theft, which carries a minimum two-year prison sentence. The threat of significant prison time is often used by prosecutors to persuade immigrants to plead guilty to lesser charges. It happened in East Moline, and it happened in Postville.
But the federal statute imposing the mandatory minimum sentence says clearly that the offender must “knowingly” have stolen an identity belonging to someone else. In a ruling that reads like a grammar lesson, Justice Stephen Breyer castigated the government for misusing the English language. Even Justice Antonin Scalia agreed.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito pointed out the capriciousness of it all, noting that only luck will determine whether an immigrant will be called a thief and suffer the consequences.
And that just about characterizes the way the more than 300 Agriprocessors workers were treated — with a capriciousness that discredits the American judicial system. After their arrest, they were subject to legal proceedings at a fairgrounds in nearby Waterloo, where they were stampeded in a mass rush to judgment. Court-appointed lawyers suddenly found themselves with 20 clients, and fear prevailed.
Then, as the Forward’s Nathaniel Popper reported with infuriating detail last fall, 18 of the workers were not allowed to return to Guatemala after their five-month prison terms but told to go back to Postville so that they could testify against Agriprocessors management. They were released from prison with only the clothes they wore when they were arrested, and on their own had to get from Cedar Rapids to Postville, where they had no place to live, no jobs and no help other than the generous support of the local Catholic Church.
Meantime, one low-level Agriprocessors supervisor was arrested and reached a deal with prosecutors, but the owners and executives of the plant have so far not come to trial. And meat and poultry from Agriprocessors is appearing again in butcher shops and supermarkets.
In the last year, members of the Jewish community have done a noble job of using this sorry tale to shore up the ethical foundations of the practice of kashrut. The Conservative movement promoted its Hekhsher Tzedek initiative; some Orthodox Jews developed their own version of new ethical guidelines; rabbis spoke out against the mistreatment of workers and animals; rallies were held and alliances forged with immigrants’ rights groups, and consumers began to alter their buying habits.
But a congressional hearing into the immigration raid ended in stalemate, its members split along party lines over whether the government acted properly. It has taken a decision by the Supreme Court to highlight the issue again.
The Obama administration has signaled that it will focus less than its predecessor did on massive raids like the one in Postville and more on the violations incurred by owners who ought to know better and ought to be held accountable. That is a welcome change. With all the care that many Jews take to examine and purify what we eat, we should be equally insistent that our government behaves in a way that respects the law and the rights of those who produce that sustenance.