Makeshift federal courtrooms were set up last week on a rented fairground in Waterloo, Iowa, for the trial, conviction and sentencing of the 389 workers arrested on immigration charges in a May 12 federal raid on the AgriProcessors, Inc. kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, 75 miles away. On May 19, the first day of the scheduled four-day proceedings, 85 defendants were convicted and sentenced. Of these, 77 pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and fraudulent use of Social Security numbers to obtain the documents needed to get their jobs; each received five months’ imprisonment, to be followed by deportation and three years’ supervised release in their home countries. The remaining eight were sentenced to immediate deportation and five years’ probation, but avoided prison because their false identities were not stolen from an actual person. The United States attorney boasted that this was “the greatest number of defendants ever to plead guilty and be sentenced in one day in the Northern District of Iowa.”
Superlatives are called for in nearly every aspect of the case. The AgriProcessors plant, owned by the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, is the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. The raid, involving scores of agents from 16 federal, state and local agencies, arriving by helicopter, bus and jeep, was the biggest single-site immigration raid in American history. In all, agents were carrying arrest warrants for 697 of the plant’s 968 employees.
Employees who eluded arrest were believed to have fled into the countryside or holed up with their families in the local Roman Catholic Church, where some 400 people were said to be sleeping, cooking and eating. Postville public schools operated at less than 65% attendance that week. Dozens of local businesses shut down.
The speed and efficiency of the trials, uncharacteristic of the federal government, were necessary if justice was to be served. The fairground, it’s reported, needed its facilities back by the weekend to set up for another affair.
The mass scale of the operation is especially noteworthy in light of a related fact: the government’s glaring failure to enforce any other laws crying out for attention at the Postville plant. The company has repeatedly been accused of food contamination, environmental pollution and violations of labor relations, workplace safety and plant sanitation laws. In just the past two years, according to the Des Moines Register, authorities have cited the plant for safety violations, inadequate emergency preparation, massive pollution discharge and sanitation breaches ranging from rodents on the premises to chickens contaminated — repeatedly — by feces, hydraulic oil and more. The punishment? Warnings and a handful of mostly minor fines.
We don’t know whether conditions at AgriProcessors are better or worse than at other slaughterhouses around the country. Our reporting has suggested that the company’s treatment of workers has been notably disappointing; others have complained of the contrast between the presumed moral values of kosher eating and the behavior of the biggest kosher slaughterer. But meatpacking is a notoriously brutal line of work.
A century ago, journalist Upton Sinclair published his muckraking exposé of slaughterhouse conditions, “The Jungle,” and sparked decades of government-imposed reforms. In the past generation, though, globalization and new technology have given companies new tools for brutalizing their workers and livestock, while changing political moods have stripped government regulators of the tools they need to keep up. It was those two processes, workplace brutalization and government disengagement that collided this month in Postville.
What’s most shameful about the Postville immigration raid is not the behavior of the immigrants or the company that hired them, but the priorities and values of the government that mounted the operation. After years of neglecting its legal duties to protect workers and consumers, it finally found the resources for a massive show of commitment to our unenforceable immigration rules, staged at the expense of hundreds of hard-working families and a struggling community. It chose the orderly over the humane. It declared to the world that protection of society’s most vulnerable is simply not its concern.