Sunday, August 17, 2008

US Town Turned Into An Open-Air Prison

US Town Turned Into An Open-Air Prison

by Charles Lewis

The town of Postville, Iowa, population 2,000, has been turned into an open-air prison. Jerry Johnson, who works at nearby Luther College, called it something out of a bad science-fiction movie or the kind of thing a 1930s totalitarian regime might have cooked up.

“This was not only a grievous injustice but a shame on the state of Iowa and the federal government,” said Mr. Johnson. “These were good, decent people who were also the most defenseless.”

On May 12, immigration officials swooped in to arrest 400 undocumented workers from Mexico Guatemala at the local meat-packing plant, a raid described as the biggest such action at a single site in U.S. history. The raid left 43 women, wives of the men who were taken away, and their 150 children without status or a means of support. The women cannot leave the town, and to make sure they do not they have been outfitted with leg monitoring bracelets. and

“The women are effectively prisoners,” said Father Paul Ouderkirk at St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church. “The difference between them and anybody who is in jail is that in jail the government pays for them, but if they’re on the streets we pay for them.

“What kind of a government makes prisoners of 43 mothers who all have children and then says, ‘You can’t work, you can’t leave and can’t stay?’ That boggles the imagination.”

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the law does not provide for work authorization for illegals.

Since the raid, St. Bridget’s, with a staff of four, has raised $500,000 to pay for rent, clothing, food and other necessities of life. Donations have come from other faith groups and individuals who have read about the raid.

Fr. Ouderkirk, who has spent 50 years as a priest and had been in retirement for five years, was called back to active duty by the parish when the crisis hit. “It is the most difficult, most challenging situation I have ever faced. And yet, strangely, the incident that has been most strengthening of my faith. It shows there are a lot of compassionate people because if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing.”

He said the women and children were so terrified that they refused to go back to their apartments. They lived at the church during the first week after the raid.

Meanwhile, the men were taken to the National Cattle Congress building in Waterloo, Iowa, where immigration judges were on hand. They were charged and then sent to nine different prisons around the state. Fr. Ouderkirk said some of the men were deported and others are serving five-month prison terms for violating immigration laws - but he said no one ever explained why some were held and others sent home.

The men were all working at Agriprocessors, believed to be the largest kosher meat-packing plant in the world. Fr. Ouderkirk and others have said the plant was a disgrace that abused workers who had little understanding of their rights. He said conditions were dangerous, accidents were common and that workers were often forced to work extremely long hours. As well, he and others said the plant knew full well that many of their workers were undocumented.

The Iowa Labor Department’s documents show there have been a number of safety and health issues. And last week, Iowa officials said they uncovered dozens of child-labour violations. No charges have been laid and the company called the allegations untrue.

The company said that since the raid, it has voluntarily gone to a more sophisticated electronic system to verify the documents of workers. It also said it was waiving rent for women living in company-owned apartments and making regular food contributions.

The plant was founded more than 20 years ago and it brought to this small Iowa town - a place settled by Norwegian Lutheran farmers - a community of Hasidic Jews. Eventually more than 1,000 workers were hired, bringing the population of Postville up to 2,400 residents.

The story of two such dissimilar cultures living side by side attracted the attention of UniversityIowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom, who wrote a book about the town called Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. of

Prof. Bloom spent five years in the town doing research. He said it was inevitable that the plant would turn to undocumented workers because they were the only ones who would stay, and the locals were not interested in such gruesome work.

He also came to the conclusion that the Hasidic Jews did not make the best neighbours and were unwilling to co-operate with the rest of the town.

But Aaron Goldsmith disagrees with that assessment and thinks that many have made Agriprocessors the bogeyman in all this. Mr. Goldsmith, also a Hasidic Jew, does not work for Agriprocessors but runs his own business in the town. He came with his family 11 years ago from California and said they all fell in love with Postville.

He said at the beginning of the plant there was a clash of cultures, but much of that has settled down. He points to his own experience of being elected a city councilman, winning more than 60% of the vote. “And only 3% of the voters are Jews.”

He calls the company a good corporate citizen that did its best to document its workers and make sure conditions were acceptable. He said the plant was rated above average for the industry in terms of safety. The plant brought enormous prosperity to the region, Mr. Goldsmith said, which improved the lives of everyone. He said the plant is also helping the women and children with food baskets and other assistance.

Even Fr. Ouderkirk, a huge critic of the company, said that with people coming because of the plant, all sorts of new businesses opened up. “Business was booming and life was good.”

Mr. Goldsmith calls what the government did the height of hypocrisy. “They arbitrarily enforce a law when it’s a well-known truth that there are millions of illegal workers. They could step into Los Angeles tomorrow and pick up a million people.”

He said the raid looked like something out of the war in Afghanistan, with helicopters circling above. He does not understand why the government could not have sat down with the plant and tried to work something out.

Instead, he said, everyone got hurt: the families of the illegal workers, the townspeople who now have to deal with transient workers instead of family people, and the school board, which lost many students who were starting to integrate into the town.

After 40 years of being a priest, and two heart attacks and two open heart surgeries, Father Richard Gaul had hoped for a chance to reduce his stress levels. But after May 12 that idea went out the door. He said he understands that the people arrested were illegal, but he said they were also desperate.

“This was their last option. They would not have chosen this as their first option. They wanted to feed their families. Scripture tells us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, give shelter to the shelterless. If you and your family were starving, what would you do?”

© 2008 The National Post

Dept. of Homeland Security has deported over 90,000 children under the age of 17 to Mexico without a parent or caregiver

It goes without saying that the saddest element in the current enforcement of immigration laws is the apprehension, deportation or abandonment of children.

Stories surface every day of parents who were apprehended and fearing the same for their children, say nothing about their children at home. They hope a relative or neighbor will eventually realize their children are alone and will take care of them until they can be reunited.

According to a new report released this week in Mexico City by the Population, Border and Migrant Affairs Commission, for every three adults deported from the United States there is one child abandoned and left behind.

But what is even more shocking and deserves further scrutiny from Congress and the American people is the documentation in the report that cites how in the first 7 months of the year the United States has deported 90,000 children to Mexico — children without their parents and who are alone.

The U.S. government has elected to disregard the safety and welfare of these children in the name of immigration enforcement.

The Mexican report revealed that 15 percent or 13,500 of these children, of all ages under 17, find themselves "parked" at the border. With no family and no way to take care of themselves. Some are either taken in by social service and religious agencies or are forced to live on the streets begging and trying with all their might to get back into the United States, or worse, are victimized by human traffickers who sexually exploit them.

The report further revealed that these child deportations are having a huge impact on those sectors of the country experiencing high migration and the Mexican government reveals it's ill-equipped to keep up with the growing number of children dumped by the U.S. government.

The report's authors are calling on the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. government to honor children's rights and to repatriate the children versus deporting them. With repatriation, the children are not left abandoned but are returned into the custody of those responsible to take care of them.

Deportations merely drop them off without ensuring their safety.

While this report highlights the shortfalls of the Mexican government in providing substantial care for these children upon their arrival, at the same time it does not exonerate the actions of the U.S. government.

For that reason, child deportations should be halted until a full and consistent repatriation program can be implemented where children are delivered to family members or reunited with family in the United States.

Agriprocessors supervisors want trial moved

By HENRY C. JACKSON | Associated Press Writer

2:03 PM CDT, August 15, 2008

DES MOINES, Iowa - The two highest ranking employees arrested in the aftermath of a massive Immigration raid at a Postville meatpacking plant argue their trials should be moved because of outsized media attention.

In a separate filing, one of the employees, Martin de la Rosa-Loera, a former floor supervisor at Agriprocessors, also asks that the judge assigned to the case recuse herself because she is not impartial.

Attorneys for Rosa-Loera and Juan Carlos Guerrero-Espinoza filed the claims this week in federal court. Both were supervisors at Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant and the site of a May 12 Immigration raid that resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 workers.

U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Bob Teig said his office cannot comment on pending motions, but added that a response would be filed in court soon.

In the motion to change venue from a federal court in Cedar Rapids, lawyers for Guerrero-Espinoza write that news media outlets in Iowa saw the events in Postville as "unprecedented" and "significant" and seized on them with particular vigor after covering record flooding during the summer.

"Particularly for the newspapers published in communities ravaged by floods and burdened with constant stories of personal loss, the media seemingly looked on the Postville raids ... as an opportunity to focus on an example of something happening in Iowa that would produce benefit for Iowans," according to the motion.

The motion also cites a handful of negative comments from newspaper Web sites and lists dozens of media mentions of the plant in area newspapers.

The request by Rosa-Loera's lawyers to remove the judge assigned to the case, Linda R. Reade, is based on Reade's role in a series of quickly completed trials for workers arrested during the raid.

After the raid, trials were held about 70 miles away at a fairgrounds in Waterloo, where 297 of the 389 people arrested pleaded guilty within a week.

According to the filing, "this Court's involvement in preparing for the proceedings, coupled with the swift and carefully choreographed nature of the guilty plea hearings, created the appearance that the Court was acting closely in concert with the government."

A phone message left with Reade's office was not immediately returned.

Both Guerrero-Espinoza and Rosa-Loera have been charged with encouraging illegal immigrants to reside in the United States and with aiding and abetting the possession and use of fraudulent identification. Guerrero-Espinoza has also been charged with aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft.

According to court filings, unnamed sources inside the Agriprocessors plant told federal officials that Guerrero-Espinoza worked in the human resource department and would bring them resident alien cards for new job applicants who were to be hired in the beef kill department, one of the areas he supervised.

The complaint against De La Rosa-Loera cites a number of unnamed sources who said he told them they needed new documents to work at the plant. According to the filing, when the sources got the new documents they reported that De La Rosa-Loera handed them back but allowed them to continue working at the plant.

Both Guerrero-Espinoza and De La Rosa-Loera reported to two plant operations managers, according to the filings.