Fresh Out of Prison With No Means of Support, Agriprocessors Workers Tell Their Stories

Jailed Slaughterhouse Workers Speak for the First Time

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 10, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.

See an updated version of this story here.

TRAPPED: Standing in their two-bedroom apartment on Postville\'s main street are six of the men who were arrested at Agriprocessors on May 12 and released October 14. From left, the men are Elder Lopez, Jonas Ordonez, Josway Muh-Exan, Rigoberto Quiej, Gabriel Calicio and Mario Toma.
TRAPPED: Standing in their two-bedroom apartment on Postville\'s main street are six of the men who were arrested at Agriprocessors on May 12 and released October 14. From left, the men are Elder Lopez, Jonas Ordonez, Josway Muh-Exan, Rigoberto Quiej, Gabriel Calicio and Mario Toma.

Postville, Iowa — When Gabriel Calicio was released from prison, five months after being arrested on immigration charges at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, his only possession was the prison-issued blue jumpsuit he was wearing.

Calicio, 21, was one of 389 people arrested during an immigration raid at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse here six months ago. He was one of 270 of those workers who were put in jail for five months, charged with stealing the Social Security numbers used to acquire their jobs at the kosher meat plant. And he was one of 18 imprisoned workers who were released on probation from a federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids on October 14.

A federal prosecutor ordered the 18 former workers to stay in America, rather than be deported, so that they could testify against former supervisors at Agriprocessors. The Agriprocessors plant in Postville has shut down its operations while filing for bankruptcy, but for Calicio and the others who were released, a new ordeal has begun. During the last six months, they have endured an unusual and harrowing journey through the United States immigration enforcement system. And the journey is not over yet.

When the workers were released in Cedar Rapids, they had nothing more than what they were arrested with on the day of the raid. In order to get from the courthouse in Cedar Rapids to Postville, where they were assigned to live until they testify, they had to rely on rides from volunteers from St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville. The prosecutors who ordered the workers to testify provided no financial support for them, so St. Bridget’s has been left with the job of feeding and housing them.

Bob Teig, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in northern Iowa, which is responsible for these cases, acknowledged that the men were released with an understanding that the church would take care of them, but he declined to comment on their circumstances.

Six of the men live in a two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a building on Lawler Street, Postville’s main drag, where the church covers the rent. They spend most of their days shuttling between their apartment and St. Bridget’s, waiting to be called to testify in a case about which they have been given little information.

“We don’t know the truth right now — but they say we have to testify against someone,” said Jonas Ordonez, a 31-year old Guatemalan whose hair was tousled and who had an anxious, attentive look on his face when he spoke with the Forward. “We just wait.”

As the six men sat around their sparsely furnished apartment on a recent Sunday night, they spoke publicly for the first time about their experiences over the past six months, and their fears of what is still to come.

“We were five months in the jail, and now they let us out, but with this on our leg,” said Ordonez, pulling up his jeans to show his probation-monitoring anklet. “We can’t go anywhere. We can’t work — we can’t do anything.”

Ordonez and his roommates are all from the same rural part of Guatemala — the province of Chimaltenango — where literacy rates are extremely low. Another resident of the house, 23-year-old Elder Lopez, was the only one of the roommates who has learned passable English and he recited, in broken English, the telephone conversation he had with his family back in Guatemala when he finally arrived in Postville.

“They said, ‘We see so many people from jail coming to Guatemala again, why you not coming here?’”

“I’m in Postville,” Lopez said he told them.

“They say, ‘What happened?’”

“Many problems; they don’t let me go into Guatemala again,” he recalled saying. “They send me to Postville again.”

“They say, ‘When you coming?’”

“I don’t know right now,” he said he told them. “I can’t tell you right now because I don’t know nothing.”

“They was crying, but we can’t do nothing,” Lopez added.

For St. Bridget’s, these men, now ex-convicts, have been an onerous burden after the months in which the church has been put to service caring for the hundreds of other people affected by the May raid at Agriprocessors. Paul Ouderkirk, the priest at St. Bridget’s, said he wonders why the court was willing to keep the men as witnesses without providing any support for them.

And they are not the only ones in this situation. In August, four men were released to testify against a different set of supervisors at Agriprocessors and sent to Postville. And St. Bridget’s was told that 13 more will be arriving from jail today, once again with the expectation that the church will provide for them.

“Frankly, I think I’m still in a state of shock that this was actually allowed to go on like this,” Ouderkirk said, sitting in his parish house. “All of us are throwing up our hands and saying, ‘Isn’t there anybody who has the power to end this nonsense?’”


The odyssey of the men on Lawler Street first began when they set out from rural Guatemala for the United States. But the most traumatic chapter commenced on May 12, when federal agents surrounded the Agriprocessors plant on the outskirts of Postville. Helicopters flew overhead and agents blocked off the roads around town. Lopez, the most talkative of the roommates, said that at the time of the raid he was working in the belly of the plant: the beef slaughter room. He had on yellow plastic pants that were covered in the blood of the cows they were slaughtering. When the agents entered the plant, he said, everyone started running.

“Stop, don’t run, we have guns,” he recalled the agents yelling. “They kicked some people, and pointed at people with the guns.”

Lopez had clothes in his locker, but he said that when he asked if he could get them he was given a simple answer: “Shut up.” He never saw those clothes again, nor the computer and television that were at his house.

The nearly 400 people arrested that day were taken in buses to the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in Waterloo, Iowa. The workers were given cots in an open gymnasium where, the men say, it was nearly impossible to sleep.

“In the middle of the night, they would come in and yell someone’s name and say, ‘Who is this!?’” Lopez said. “Then they would leave, and we would try to sleep again, but they would come in again and yell again. We almost didn’t sleep for three days.”

Workers caught in raids like the one in Postville are usually deported immediately, and the men all said that is what they expected. But the U.S. attorney’s office in northern Iowa, which was responsible for the cases, argued that because the Agriprocessors workers had used Social Security numbers that were not their own, they should be sent to prison. Court-appointed lawyers for the workers told them that if they did not sign a pre-drafted plea agreement, they could face two years in prison, if not longer.

The mass court appearances over two weeks, in which each court-appointed lawyer had about 20 clients, drew intense public criticism and were the subject of congressional hearings. A lawyer who had been appointed to represent some of the men wrote a letter to the congressional committee explaining why he had walked out in “disgust.”

“This process: presumed guilt; deprived defendants of their right to due process; and interfered with the basic right to choose their own counsel,” said the letter from Rockne Cole, an Iowa City lawyer. “The court appointed attorney’s role appeared to be only to act as a guilty plea processing clerk, and served only to expedite the mass waiver of rights.”

After the sentencing, the workers were shipped off to federal penitentiaries around the country. Sonia Parras, a Des Moines lawyer who has done extensive pro-bono work for many of the people arrested on May 12, said that even after weeks in prison, the workers did not seem to understand what had happened.

“After two months of conversations, some of them were still asking me, ‘Now why am I here? When am I going to get out?’” Parras said.

Even after they were out of prison, the six roommates on Lawler Street expressed confusion about why they were guilty of identity theft when they had paid for the Social Security numbers they used to apply for jobs at Agriprocessors.

“They say we took the papers, but we didn’t take the papers, we bought the papers. We paid $125,” Ordonez said.

All of the roommates were taken to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan. Ordonez and Lopez were in a three-person cell together. Calicio, who would later be released in prison garb, said that the violent culture of the prison caught up to him when other prisoners stole his identification and then beat him up when he asked for it back.

“When they hit, they hit hard,” said Calicio, who spoke hesitantly.

During the five months in jail, Lopez said he was able to call his family in Guatemala once. Before the raid, his parents and seven siblings back in Chimaltenango had relied upon him for money, but he said they did not bring this up during the call.


After five months, most of the Agriprocessors workers were flown back to their respective countries. But the same U.S. attorneys in northern Iowa who had prosecuted the men had, in the meantime, opened prosecutions against a number of supervisors and executives at Agriprocessors. The most high-profile case is against Sholom Rubashkin, former CEO of the Postville slaughterhouse and the son of Agriprocessors’ founder. Rubashkin has been charged with helping employees falsify their documents; he was arrested on October 30 and immediately released on bail. Criminal cases were also opened against human resource directors at Agriprocessors on similar charges.

The men on Lawler Street say that it was only upon being flown from the Kansas prison to a courthouse in Cedar Rapids that they were told they were being ordered to testify in a case that the government has brought against Laura Althouse, an Agriprocessors human resources director. The men and their lawyers say that they were given the option of testifying on video and returning to Guatemala, but they were told that if they chose that option they would have to return to jail while the video testimony was arranged. Otherwise, they could be released immediately on probation, to live in Postville until their date in court, after which they would be deported. Not willing to return to jail, they agreed to their current arrangement.

“If I could go back now without testifying, I would go now,” Ordonez said.

As to how the men would survive, Calicio’s court-appointed lawyer, Christopher Clausen, said that the judge told him and the other lawyers that “over half a million dollars had been raised by the church to care for the people and that they would get them places to stay.”

The first the church heard of this was in phone calls on the morning of October 14 from the court-appointed lawyers.

“At 10 a.m. the lawyers in Cedar Rapids started calling and said you have to find housing or they will stay in jail,” Violeta Iseman said. Iseman is a 26-year-old naturalized citizen who was born in Mexico. She worked at Agriprocessors until the raid. Since then, she has spent her days at the church receiving an endless line of needy former workers.

After the call from the lawyers, Iseman said she immediately went to work. “Cedar Rapids is not around the corner; we had to find people willing to drive two hours to pick them up. My husband wasn’t working on that day, and it was his birthday so I asked him to do a good deed for someone else.”

This was not the only time that the courts have relied on the small parish in Postville. Immediately after the raid, the courts handed the church some 40 women who had been arrested and released on probation in order to care for their children. Since then, these women have been awaiting court dates without work permits, and the church has been the only means of support for almost all of them. At one point, when a probation officer called Iseman to ask her to check in on some of the women, Ouderkirk said he called the probation officer and said, “You are treating us as an extension of your office, and that we are not.”

When the men in the Lawler Street apartment were released, they were told that they would receive work permits allowing them to work in a 150-mile radius around Postville. Those work permits arrived at the end of October, but the men learned that they now have to apply for Social Security clearance, which is expected to take another two weeks. In the meantime, Lopez said he has been asking around for help.

“I called the probation officers and I told those guys, ‘We need help, we need some money to buy food,’” Lopez said. “They say, ‘We have no money. We will try and do something but we can’t right now.’ They say, ‘Call the church, maybe they can help you.’”

Calicio’s court-appointed lawyer, Clausen, said that there are generally mechanisms that prosecutors can use to support witnesses, but he said he was told that “on the short notice they weren’t going to be able to come up with that.”

The men from the apartment said when they are able to work they would be happy to go back to Agriprocessors until they testify but that their probation officers have told them that would not be allowed. Until it went bankrupt last week, Agriprocessors was the only major employer in Postville, and even if the men had a car to travel in the area, jobs are scarce.

“I’m glad they’ve got the work permits, but I used to live in northeast Iowa and there are not many work opportunities up there,” said Clausen, who is leaving the case because of a new job. “They are in a real jam in terms of finding work.”

At St. Bridget’s, the priest and Iseman say it could be worse. The first four men released back in August were kept under house arrest for two months. “They got two hours on Saturday to go to church — other than that they were stuck in their apartment,” Iseman said.

This is little comfort to the men on Lawler Street. Once they do testify against Althouse, whose trial has not begun, the men are to be immediately deported. While the roommates are split about whether they want to go home, they all agree that if they do testify they should be given the option to stay for a bit longer. Ordonez made a personal plea.

“Tell the president that he should give us a work permit for at least one year,” Ordonez said. “It has been six months, and we have not been able to help our families in Guatemala. We haven’t been able to send one cent. I think this should be on the conscience of the government.”

Parras, the lawyer who has watched the whole process, said the courts and prosecutors have never shown much regard for the wishes of these men.

“The government has shown a total disregard for human rights — just to get what they need,” Parras said. “They will get what they need, but at what cost to these men and the community around them?”


For complete Forward coverage of Agriprocessors and the kosher meat industry, click here.



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