Of Note: “No More Postvilles”; HIAS in the Heartland
Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Tue, Aug 05, 2008 at 12:43 pm
Last week I joined more than one thousand fellow demonstrators marching through the streets of Postville, Iowa in solidarity with the undocumented immigrant workers who were detained, some deported, and many imprisoned after a raid by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). This raid, the largest single-site raid by ICE, was notable because of its scope (nearly 400 workers were arrested); the fact that for the first time a large group of undocumented immigrant workers were prosecuted as felons instead of immediately being deported; and because it occurred at AgriProcessors, a plant owned by a Chasidic Jewish family that produces more than 60% of the kosher beef on the American market.
For me, participating in the event was a natural extension of HIAS’ longstanding effort to advocate for humane and workable immigration reform legislation. I also was guided and inspired by a recent HIAS Policy Statement that criticized ICE’s harsh and single-minded focus on immigration raids in the wake of federal failure on immigration reform last year.
The Postville march and rally was organized by Jewish Community Action of Minneapolis/St. Paul; the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs of Chicago; St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, where many of the Guatemalan and Mexican immigrant workers had taken refuge; and Luther College of Decorah Iowa. Protesters from these and other surrounding cities and towns – many from Jewish and Christian communities – converged on Postville to respond to the suffering of the immigrant workers due to ICE’s actions and the alleged extreme mistreatment by AgriProcessors, as well as to call for new ethical standards in kashrut (Heksher Tzedek).
This was not an ordinary raid. In a rushed process, prosecutors gave approximately 270 undocumented workers two options: take a plea bargain and serve five months in prison on the lesser charge of using false social security numbers or contest their guilt on the greater charge of identity theft. If they chose the latter option, they would be incarcerated for six months awaiting trial and potentially face two years in jail. In either case, the immigrants would be deported at the end of their terms.
Not surprisingly, we saw mass acceptance of the plea bargain. Those immigrants with dependent children at home in Postville – mostly mothers – were allowed to leave jail, but are being forced to wear GPS ankle bracelets and are barred from either returning to their home country or working in Postville. To this day, they are completely dependent on charity to sustain their families. The heart breaking testimony of the “women of the bracelets” as well as children – often US citizens or kids who had spent nearly all of their lives in Postville and now were separated from imprisoned parents – was the emotional peak of the day.
One aspect of the Postville raid I had not anticipated was the extensive impact on the town itself. Several Postville natives participating in the march spoke with me, emotionally explaining how their town was devastated. Over many years, the immigrant community had become a stable part of their economy, their religious life, and the social cohesion of this town of 2,400. The detained Guatemalan and Mexican workers were their neighbors, their fellow parishioners, and law abiding members of their town. One man noted that they had even brought soccer to Postville; the town had joined the wider world.
After the raid, many of the remaining immigrant residents simply left town. Local businesses closed. One resident underscored the scope of the economic impact when he informed me that even the local Wal-Mart had taken a hit, losing more than 60% of its normal business the Saturday after the raid. He also stressed that, unlike the workers they had lost, the new workforce was comprised mainly of single men, not families, and that they had seen crime, including fights and stabbings, increase since the raid.
So, it made perfect sense for HIAS, as an American immigrants’ rights organization, to be in Postville. But, were there explicitly Jewish reasons to have made the trip? For me, the answer was just as clearly a resounding yes.
The Jewish argument for engagement is surely based in significant part on the distress and concern of so many Jews over the allegations of severe violations of workers’ rights leveled at a Jewish-identified company, particularly one that produces kosher food. While beyond the scope of HIAS’ specific focus on migration, the Heksher Tzedek movement raises crucial questions relating to the interplay of Jewish law and ethics and how our food – both kosher and non-kosher – is produced.
We also look to the biblical imperative to “welcome the stranger” as the Jewish call to action for immigrants and refugees and a firm basis for our concern over what happened in Postville. If we really are committed to comprehensive immigration reform instead of immigration raids, how can we neglect a case where otherwise law-abiding immigrant workers are treated like dangerous felons? The inhumane treatment of the immigrant workers, and the foolish waste of enforcement resources prosecuting and detaining non-threatening undocumented immigrants, run counter to our Jewish community’s core values and interests.
The only potentially bright side of the whole tragic situation in Postville is that ICE, in its enthusiasm to enforce the law against undocumented immigrants, may have ignited a spark of protest in the Jewish community and other faith communities, and across the country, that will cry out: “No More Postvilles.”
While certainly a difficult challenge, passage of real, comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, D.C. would offer Postville and other communities greater protection of labor rights and a stable workforce to help develop local institutions and businesses. For the nation as a whole, it would offer a chance to create a rational legal immigration system to substitute for the chaos, exploitation, and insecurity we see today. This clearly is a cause worth marching for – in Postville last week and in the future.