Raids break up families, union drive


Where in this world do tax dollars pay government agents to park near preschool centers and watch parents drop off or pick up their babies?

In what type of land do government agents stalk busloads of 5-year-old school children and the staff who teach them?

Where do government agents smash in a front door and tear a nursing infant from the arms of her mother?

Answer: In Postville, Iowa, where employers want to stop a union organizing drive at Agriprocessors Inc., the nation’s biggest kosher beef slaughtering plant.

The largest single immigration raid in U.S. history at that plant, May 12, tore families apart and turned children with loving parents into orphans, immigrant rights and labor activists testified to Congress on May 20.

Within just three days, by May 23, in makeshift “courtrooms” at a fairground in Waterloo, Iowa, 270 workers were sentenced to five weeks in prison for “working with false documents.” When they get out of jail they will be deported.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association has protested that the workers were denied meetings with immigration lawyers and that the government’s rush to round up, prosecute, imprison and deport the workers was unprecedented.

The military-style commando raid by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE) stopped a union organizing drive at the plant dead in its tracks, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union spearheading the drive.

“This raid and abusive detention signifies union busting,” Rafael Espinoza, an organizer with UFCW Local 789, told the World. Nationally, the United Food and Commercial Workers union condemned the raid and said it not only disrupted the organizing drive, but interfered with an ongoing child labor investigation.

Iowa officials have cited the plant for numerous health and safety and wage and hour violations. A group of workers is suing the company in federal court for unpaid wages for the time they spend putting on and taking off protective equipment.

Tearing children away from their parents has been a feature of ICE raids for well over a year now. Since the start of 2007 almost 5,000 people have been arrested in workplace raids, 45 times as many as in 2001.

“They have a pattern that featured, in this case, parking by the Head Start center in a Latino neighborhood as parents dropped off or picked up their kids,” Janet Murguia, CEO of the National Council of La Raza, told the congressional committee. “They followed school buses full of 5-year-olds and they tailed immigrant Head Start staffers,” she said.

Reached by phone, Murguia said, “We are also aware of cases where ICE broke into private homes and entered school buildings to remove children. For example, in October 2007, a Honduran immigrant mother was in her Ohio home breastfeeding her 9-month-old when ICE agents entered and took her into custody. Her other children, all born in the United States, like the baby, were pulled out of school.” Since that time, Murguia said, the government has released no information about either the arrested mother or her children.

In Iowa, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dubuque issued a statement saying the raids had created a “state of terror” among families in Postville.

“The actions taken by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Postville on May 12 highlight once again the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” Archbishop Jerome Hanus said. “Families have been disrupted; parents and children are filled with fear. Many are uncertain whether their loved ones will be arrested, imprisoned indefinitely or deported.

“This state of terror for families is evidence that our political system has not adequately addressed the demand for labor, the inadequacies of our present immigration policies and practices, and the broader economic challenges. Some of the weakest members among us are bearing the brunt of the suffering, while legislators and other leaders, as well as many of us in the general public, have failed to give this issue the priority it deserves.”

The superintendent of the Postville schools told the East Iowa Gazette that large numbers of the district’s Latino students were staying home from school out of fear. One of the top high school seniors, set to graduate this term, was in hiding with his family, the superintendent said.

Lutheran Bishop Steven Ullestad, whose diocese includes Postville, said, “Children wonder whether they will see their arrested parent or parents. Even children of U.S. citizens are having nightmares about their own parents being taken away from them and they are creating drawings with the words, ‘Don’t take my friends away’.”