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Immigration Raids vs. Enforcing Labor Rights - Iowa seeks alternatives to broken families and communities

The federal government is fixated on raiding workplaces in search of immigrant workers, but they have practically abandoned punishing irresponsible employers violating wage, workplace safety and child labor laws.  Demonstrating a remarkable commitment to punishing the victims, they've left it up to states to take action against the more pervasive problem of sweatshop labor conditions.

The federal immigration raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, which was the site of the nation’s second largest workplace raid by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is a perfect example of a failed policy that has left a community “topsy-turvy” according to the mayor. A local priest is upset that it has come down to his parish feeding, housing, and clothing the families who have been left behind and torn apart.

Ouderkirk, who came out of retirement after the raid, says it's costing his church $80,000 a month, and the church only has enough money to keep paying through the end of the year. "It's pathetic when you have what was labeled by the man who directed the raid here as a 'very successful raid.' How successful is this when it does this to the children and breaks up families?" Ouderkirk says.

State AG Steps in to Prosecute Child Labor Violations: The federal government's actions were narrowly focused, only looking at employees' immigration statuses.  Iowa's Attorney General, however, stepped forward to prosecute the owners and senior management of Agriprocessors over the broader and more pervasive issue: mistreatment of all workers at the plant.

Local authorities found over 30 underage children toiling at the plant in unsafe conditions. Between 2001 and 2006 OSHA had found health and safety violations that led to five amputations, dozens of reports of broken bones, eye injuries and hearing loss.  The company has been charged with an astounding 9000-plus child labor law violations alone, not to mention other labor violations and abuses including wage theft, sexual abuse, drug production and fraud, physical abuse, numerous health and safety violations, and food safety and environmental violations. The Attorney General’s charges mark a path forward for those who believe in standing up for the rights of all workers — immigrant and native-born alike — and in punishing exploitative employers. Despite years of documented abuses, Agriprocessors officials have pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The deeper problem is that government agencies have, in the past, turned a blind eye to the company’s long history of worker abuses.  In fact, the agencies have even reduced fines that the Iowa Department of Labor had levied for dangers to workplace safety, including the improper storage and handling of hazardous chemicals and inadequate training in the use of respirators and handling of blood-borne pathogens.

Federal Actions Undermines State Prosecution of the Employer: Complicating the ability for state prosecutors to make their case, is that the federal government wants to deport all the immigrants arrested during the raid.  The state, however, needs these individuals as witnesses in their case against Agriprocessors’ owners. In the wake of the raids, most of the meatpacking workers quickly pled guilty to felony charges that they didn’t understand for using false Social Security Numbers that were given to them by company personnel. A federal court interpreter has spoken out, saying that the workers didn’t understand that they were taking other people’s identities: "The federal court got taken for a ride," says Erik Camayd-Freixas, a federal certified interpreter who was there. "There was no presumption of innocence."

Rabbis Take Action: In the wake of the raid at Agriproccesors, a supplier of kosher meat, religious groups and other corporations have stepped in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. A group of rabbis formed a task force on kosher food and labor, Heksher Tzedek, to ensure that religious values, food safety and workers’ rights are maintained at all kosher plants.  Furthermore, other, more responsible employers from Minnesota have even come recruiting for employees, promising better working conditions and pay, especially after hearing about the atrocious situation that workers have faced. Recent polls show that a majority of Iowans believe that employers should also be punished, and are in support of undocumented immigrants who work.

The story of Agriprocessors has a definite moral: greater government oversight and stronger wage and worker safety law enforcement can help prevent situations where corporations can so easily manipulate and take advantage of their employees. States are increasingly forced to lead on cracking down on employers in the face of federal immigration officials who are only concerned about workers’ immigration statuses, instead of punishing employers who have systematically undermined work standards for all workers.  Last session, the Iowa Senate approved a wage enforcement bill, which would have increased the tools for state officials to punish illegal acts at the Agriprocessors plant.  Hopefully, the full legislature in Iowa, along with other states, will step into the breach left by a failed federal approach to immigration and sweatshop work conditions and approve wage enforcement bills that benefit both immigrant and native workers alike.