Ignorance of history is no excuse. Agriprocessors (1987-2008) lifted Postville from the farm crisis, doubled its population and turned it into a vibrant multicultural community, hailed as a model of ethnic integration for the future of rural America.
But Agriprocessors was not Sholom Rubashkin. The muscle, the human fuel, driving the meatpacking industry as a whole was supplied by undocumented migrant labor: Eastern European, then Mexican, and lately Guatemalan. This trend has been common knowledge for two decades.
To claim, as U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose does in her June 23 guest essay (“Setting the Record Straight on the Postville Prosecution”), that Postville was “occupied by residents who benefited from, and feared the discovery of, hundreds of illegal workers at Agriprocessors” is not only disingenuous; it is a slur on the welcoming 150-year-old community of Lutherans and Catholics that she helped devastate – all for the trophy conviction of Sholom Rubashkin.
Yet six former attorney generals, aware of the Northern District of Iowa’s extremism, signed a pre-sentencing letter warning that Rubashkin’s white-collar crime conviction was never worth as much.
As refrigeration pushed labor-intensive meatpacking away from big cities and closer to livestock, the Midwest experienced an increasing rural flight – high school graduates seeking urban opportunities and leaving an aging population and severe labor shortages behind. The industry grew dependent on migrant labor, which in turn allowed young Iowans to opt for an urban education, instead of the ailing family farm.
After the raid, Agriprocessors never found enough workers to operate at more than 35 percent capacity. Losses mounted, and Rubashkin’s bank deals went sour with the bankruptcy caused by the raid. This led to a loss of business of $200 million per year in a 150-mile radius, entailing the loss of 4,000 American jobs that depended on Postville’s 700 undocumented workers.
Immigration authorities have been raiding meatpacking plants since the 1990s. Nearby Marshalltown was raided in 1996 and 2006. What sets Postville apart, beside being 10 times smaller and its raid twice as large, is that it was followed by the only mass prosecution in American history, the kind that should never be repeated in a democracy.
As an impartial court expert serving in the Waterloo proceedings, May 13-22, 2008, I witnessed how the 306 meatpackers were denied rights guaranteed to all defendants by the Constitution. New York City chief prosecutor Robert Morgenthau called such abuses a “national disgrace” and “a stain on our reputation.” Federal prosecutors complained they pursued this noble profession to prosecute real criminals, not common workers.
Guilty pleas were coerced from Guatemalan paupers begging to be deported so they could feed their families. Such indiscriminate use of identity theft charges, forcing migrants to plea to lesser crimes, was slammed unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court. With the fraud charges forced on the workers, Rose’s office poisoned its own witnesses. The only reason the workers were herded into prison for five months, at a cost to taxpayers of $6 million, was to keep 40 material witnesses against Rubashkin on alien harboring charges that were later dismissed without trial. These federal witnesses were dumped on the community with no provisions for their keep. This was a sloppy case that exceeded the resources of Iowa’s Northern District.
Rose claims the feds rescued exploited workers by prosecuting those who “preyed upon” them. But Agriprocessors, while paying low, non-union wages and practicing all forms of wage theft, did not force workers into a job they needed to support their families, treating them infinitely better than the feds.
In October 2008, days before their deportation, I interviewed 94 Postville workers in federal prison and obtained affidavits of abuses at Waterloo, including keeping detainees in five-point shackles for up to 14 hours, forcing them to eat in shackles, and threatening them with more time if they didn’t sign away rights and pleas. When I reminded them of the TVs and table games available at their Waterloo prison camp, they laughed at me, saying “those were for the guards.” Immigration Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) wrote on Dec. 10, 2008, to Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff demanding an investigation into “disturbing allegations of verbal, physical, and mental abuse of workers” at the National Cattle Congress.
No investigation was ever conducted, and Rose’s official story from behind the iron curtain just doesn’t cut it. The final word on Postville will not be written for a long time yet.
Erik Camayd-Freixas is a professor of Hispanic studies at Florida International University.