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Last week, hundreds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, flanked by helicopters, a trail of SUVs and a convoy of buses, descended on the tiny town of Postville, Iowa. They set up a perimeter around the 60-acre kosher meat-processing plant operated by the global giant Agriprocessors, Inc. and conducted the largest workplace raid in U.S. history. Around 400 people were arrested -- most from Mexico, Eastern Europe and Guatemala -- representing 40 percent of the plant's workers and 17 percent of the town's population. Warrants for another 300 were issued.
Some would call it a victory for law and order. But a closer look at the showy example of "getting tough on illegals" offers some insight into what immigration restrictionists are really asking for when they call for more immigration enforcement.
During a similar sweep last year, ICE generated some bad publicity when reporters found that a number of young children had been left unattended when their parents were arrested. So 56 of those arrested last week -- mostly mothers of small kids -- were released on "humanitarian grounds." Nonetheless, a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of dozens of the Postville detainees "noted that a number of immigrant workers' children have been stranded with baby sitters and other caretakers as a result of the raid."
The suit charges that some of the detained workers are victims of crimes by Agriprocessors, Inc., which may entitle them to a visa, and accuses the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of arbitrary and indefinite detention and violating the workers' constitutional rights.
According to the Associated Press, an attorney who interviewed some of those swept up in the raid said that the company itself "obtained false identification for immigrant workers." But in the overwhelming majority of these raids -- 98 percent, according to the Washington Post -- the only people to pay any penalty are poor people trying to earn a substandard wage working in America's growing unregulated economy.
Meanwhile, ICE charged many of the detained with "identity theft" for those faked papers, effectively giving immigration hard-liners what Congress hasn't granted them through the legislative process: serious criminal charges for what have always been misdemeanor immigration violations at most.
In this case, as in many others like it, many of the workers appear to have been seriously exploited. The AP reported that the plant's management "improperly withheld money from employees' paychecks for 'immigration fees,' didn't allow workers to use the restroom during 10-hour shifts, physically abused workers and didn't compensate them for overtime work."
According to MSNBC, workers at the plant were routinely started at $5 per hour for their first three or four months on the job and then raised to $6, still well below Iowa's minimum wage of $7.25.
Iowa Labor Commissioner David Neil confirmed to the Des Moines Register that Agriprocessors was being investigated by the state on suspicion of wage violations, paying people off the books and hiring underage workers. A copy of the federal warrant obtained by the Register described an incident in which "a supervisor covered the eyes of an employee with duct tape and struck him with a meat hook."
It's unclear what the raids' impact will be on the ongoing investigations into the company's workplace violations. With hundreds of workers -- and potential witnesses -- carted away, Jill Cashen, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), asked: "how can justice ever be served on these exploitation issues?"
Agriprocessor's management must have been pleased with the timing of the raid. Not only did it put at least a crimp in the ongoing investigations of serious allegations of abuse by the company, it also derailed an effort by UFCW to organize the plants' workers and give them a shot at bargaining with management for better working conditions.
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Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.