National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

Blog & Updates

What do meatpacking factory workers, Homeland Security officials, and all 9 Justices have in common?

May 06, 2009 - Posted by Brittney Nystrom

May 12 marks the inauspicious anniversary of the immigration raid by DHS on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.   Nearly 400 undocumented immigrants were arrested as helicopters swarmed and DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents stormed the plant like SWAT-teams.  The impact of the Agriprocessors raid has been dramatic, with the company filing for bankruptcy, employers convicted of criminal wrongdoing and charged with 9,000 violations of state child labor law and $10 million in fines for wage violations, hundreds of workers being prosecuted and deported, and the town facing the loss of both its biggest employer and a large part of its population.

In an egregious misapplication of identity theft laws, US attorneys used these charges to threaten immigrant workers arrested in the Postville raid with 5 and 10 year federal prison sentences and pressured them to sign away all their rights to a fair trial by jury and to appeal. The workers were in effect forced to accept immediate deportations. As described by a federal interpreter, many of the workers were from indigenous populations from Guatemala, and did not have the language skills or cultural understanding to know what they were being charged with or what they were pleading to. Most did not even know what a Social Security Number was, let alone know that it may have belonged to another person. Many of workers served reduced five-month prison sentences and were quickly deported to their countries.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision on May 4th, rejecting the prosecution of immigrant workers for aggravated identity theft. ICE and the US Attorneys in their zeal, failed to establish that the workers knew the identification belonged to someone else.  Immigration law professor Steven Legomsky told the New York Times that this decision will have a major impact on how ICE prosecutes immigrants.  He predicts the court’s ruling will make it harder for ICE to push for criminal charges against immigrants who work without proper authorization.


Yesterday, the national bar association of immigration lawyers called on the Justice Department to consider dismissing the guilty pleas of the nearly 300 workers from the Agriprocessors raid. As quoted in the NY Times, "The federal prosecutors used the law as a hammer to coerce the workers," said David Leopold, a vice president of the lawyers’ association. He said Mr. Holder should dismiss the charges in cases where the threat of prosecution under the statute "was a miscarriage of justice."

With uncanny timing, DHS last week issued internal guidance that directs ICE to refine its worksite enforcement activities to focus on employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers.  These new policy guidelines focus ICE raids on the pursuing criminal prosecution of unscrupulous employers, rather than indiscriminately trying to net as many unfortunate workers as can be found working for these employers.  However, DHS also made clear that ICE would continue to detain undocumented immigrants found in worksite raids.

The workers from Postville, the Supreme Court Justices, and even DHS surprisingly agree that immigration enforcement priorities are mistaken and that we urgently need to correct them. Refocusing enforcement efforts on employers who exploit the broken immigration system for their own gain is a welcome shift, but as Ali Noorani said in response to the new guidance, “tweaking enforcement policies is no substitute for reform.”

People of faith and conscience from different traditions and all walks of life will come together in Postville on May 12th to mark the one-year anniversary of the raid. As the bells at St. Bridget’s church ring at 10am EST, the echo will carry across the country with over forty other communities in 20 different states participating in simultaneous vigils and events, ringing their church bells or sounding their shofars.

As politicians and pundits divisively argue about the potential politics of reforming immigration, the communities that stand as witnesses to the realities of failed policies are united and speaking as one. There are those pols and pundits who urge the administration and the legislature to wait. On May 12th, the bells atop the small church in Iowa will ring out in response, to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.


Crossroads Campaign Solutions