Five years have passed since federal immigration officials launched a massive raid on the Agriprocessors facility in Postville, Iowa. Hello, I'm Paul Yeager. Over the next 30 minutes we'll examine the impact on that raid with a variety of business, legal and community leaders here in Iowa. First we'll take a trip back nearly 15 years ago with an IPTV documentary profiling an Iowa town in the midst of a culture clash. What really happens when multiculturalism moves to the most of unlikely places. In the year 2000 those in Postville were more concerned with culture clashes than immigration violation. It was eight years before the Postville raid when Iowa Public Television produced a one-hour documentary showing the growths of two distinct cultures emerging in some small farming community of fewer than 2500 residents.
This is Postville, Iowa, a tiny farming community in the northeast corner of the state, 20 miles from the Mississippi River, 30 minutes from the nearest McDonald's and light years from the kind of place where multi- culturalism usually takes root.
Up until 1987 the town was primarily white. Many of whom were descendants of some of the early settlers of town, Germans. Then a group of Hasidic Jews from New York to rural Iowa to buy a meat packing plant to begin to process kosher meat.
We were on the kosher end of the business in New York. The supply site were closing up in the '80s. The idea was to come here and produce the kosher meat here where the cattle are and ship it out. It's the only planned that's designed and run by people who care about kosher.
To oversee the intricate process of kosher meat, the plant recruited nearly 30 trained rabbis. They brought their families and friends and relatives followed and soon Hasidic Jews were embracing corn fields and back yard barbecues and farms. On the day to day processing line, Agriprocessors hired hundreds of workers, primarily from Mexico and Guatemala. They opened their own stores and restaurants and more public school teachers were hired to teach English. Before you knew it Postville had three distinct populations and a vibrant economy.
Our town is not dying. It's not exactly what everybody wanted but there is a vitality to Postville.
You see people walking. You see people talking. New people are coming in. For a long period of time we didn't have that. All we heard was do you know if such and touch a place is going to close. Businesses are going to close. And it's not that way anymore. I think this vitality part for me has been really great. I know that Postville is going to survive. It isn't going just dry up and be gone.
I guess I didn't imagine that this would happen. It makes me nervous to see what's going to happen in the next ten years. What's going to happen to our town. Is it going to be good for the town. Are they going to bring more jobs? Is everything goes to change or is everybody going to move out and that's all that's going to be here.
In 2000 when this shopkeeper wondered about the future changes in town, she may have never imagined what did occur would become national headlines. In May 2008, U.S. immigration and customs enforcement agents descended upon Agriprocessors meat packing plant and arrested nearly 400 illegal immigrants. At the time it was billed as the largest single site workplace crackdown in U.S. history.
Our agents are executing a criminal search warrant relating to evidence of aggravated identity theft, the improper use of social security numbers and other crimes.
Many of those arrested were sentenced to five months incarceration for identity theft, followed by deportation. Many of their family members, spouses and children, were not deported. Some still live in Postville. Those who ran the meat packing plant face numerous criminal and fraud charges with initial fines proposed at nearly $10 million. Within six months of the raid, the plant owners filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company was bought at auction in mid-2009.
Joining us in studio to discuss the aftermath are four leaders of various backgrounds. Bob Tieg is a district attorney in the northern district of Iowa and was in that office during the Postville raid. Sandra Sanchez is director of The Iowa Immigration Voices Program for the American Friends Services Committee. Paul Gregorie is vice president of Global Human Resources at Emerson Fisher in Marshall Town. And Father Greg Bahl is a preacher and currently serving the Trinity Cluster in Postville. Thank you for joining us for this discussion.
Father, I'm going to start with you. Give us the sense of Postville today.
I come from a little different background because I wasn't there when the raid occurred. So it was coming in as a new comer one of the things when I arrived in Postville three years ago everything was still very raw. I'm not 100% sure if I have settled into -- that that much healing has happened or that I've just become accustomed to it. I know there's still a lot of economic problems and as a community in a very real way it's very -- especially with the Hispanic community is very transitional so we have a lot of people coming. They work there for a while and then they leave. Where as before the environment was very different. They had an established community of families, established community of kind of a much more cohesive community I would think.
Now, my understanding is when you bring it up or you ask about the raid from kids to adults go quiet. They don't want to talk about it anymore. Is that the case?
That was one of the things that was surprising to me. When I first arrived there – I don't want to sound callous but in that spring of 2010, there was a lot of significant traumatic events in the diocese. And from a pastoral perspective, we had the floods in Cedar Rapids at the time where I was stationed. Tornado in Parkersville and the raid in Postville, a lot of events that affected a lot of people. And when I was assigned to Postville, of course I was very aware of the raid. But I didn't quite have the same sensitivity to it that I should have. Because when I first got there I
would interact and it was foolish -- even though it was two years prior I would say what do you remember and they would say of course I remember. I remember speaking with high school students and how they quickly would be brought to tears. It was a traumatic event and still very raw. I think it's less raw now but it's still a sensitive and difficult topic, especially for youth.
Sandra, you were dealing with some of those that were impacted by the raid at the time. You did not go specifically to Postville but you dealt with those who had been, either before or had been deported. What has been in those last five years are you still taking calls from this raid in 2008?
I know one immigration attorney that is a very close friend of mine is still dealing with some of the cases that are not finished yet for those who applied for visas. Bringing some of the families back from Guatemala now for those who have cases and were successful in getting those done. So we had -- I don't remember what year, two years ago that families had some of those cases. That have been extremely wonderful to see, but you always think of the many hundreds that didn't have that.
We're talking nearly 400 and at the time it was the largest single site workplace crackdown in U.S. history. Bob, I'll ask you, you were in the office at the U.S. Attorneys at that time. Was Postville targeted or why was Postville a spot that had enforcement officers go to?
It has been a very poorly kept secret. Everyone knew that there was a problem with illegal immigration and illegal aliens. I use that term specifically. I know people use the misnomer of undocumented workers. They weren't undocumented. They had false documents. They weren't citizens of the United States. They were aliens here illegally. So I'll use the term illegal alien. What was discovered in the course of tips from people, paper investigation was almost 80% of the work force at that packing plant were illegal aliens. It was discovered there were children under the age of 18 working there. It was discovered that women were being abused by supervisors. It was discovered that the plant had a very bad safety record. That was kind of the background that led up to the enforcement action.
So it was a number of factors is what you're saying, it wasn't just about illegal people that were working but you're saying it was a culmination of many factors?
Well, it just showed -- unfortunately where you have a community of people who are here illegally, they are subject to victimization and sometimes in extreme senses because they can't go to the authorities. If they got ripped off by a used car dealer, what are they going to do? If they want to complain to a supervisor what are they going to do? They have no power. And then to even show further how powerless they were, these are people that were working back-break black jobs for $5 and $6 an hour. Even back then that was just atrocious.
One of the criticisms of that raid was the scope of it and that it might not have had a lasting impact. In reality we haven't seen large scale crackdowns like that since. They're now much smaller in nature, one, two families at a time. Does that mean that the policy changed or was it just not as successful or doing as good of a job as what enforcement thought it could do.
Policies always change from administration to administration. From administrator to administrator. I had never been in on the policy making side. It's illegal and you can't turn a blind eye to that. It's my understanding now that the plant has been re-opened and workers have been hired. They're hiring legal workers and they're paying them $17, $18 an hour in some cases -- $15.
Not quite, Father? You're saying no?
The exploitation that was happening before, he's correct. There is a lot of horrible, horrible things going on in that plant. The devastation of the raid I would say this is probably the most devastating federal raid because the other large scale raid all took place in municipalities. Much larger municipals. Within weeks of the raid in Postville over half the town was gone. It absolutely crushed economically, culturally --
Socially destroyed the community in a lot of ways. So I think that might have been a factor of the politics of it wasn't a very bright shining moment for justice in our country by any shortage of the imagination. Now that -- I think a lot of the blatantly illegal things, especially underage workers to my knowledge isn't happening, but many say the conditions at the plant as far as under pay, undertraining, long hours, still exist. I would say that things at the plant are not markedly proved.
I want to disagree how you describe whether it was a shining example or not. The reason half the town left is because they were illegal aliens. About a little over 300 were arrested but that was one shift. There were arrest warrants out for 700 people at a plant that employed a little over -- around 1,000 people.
I'm not going to argue with that. That's why they left. The reason the businesses closed down is because that economy had been built like a house of cards. It was just waiting to fall. People there were turning a blind eye to it, willing to profit off these people who were being paid $5 and $6 an hour to work dangerous jobs where they were underpaid and subject to abuse and the local economy was built on that abuse. So it should have gone down, because once the abuse is gone you have to accept the consequence that you don't have that advantage anymore.
However, I would like to ask you because it is my understanding that even though it was prosecution towards those illegal actions also on the part of the employers and supervisors and people who were abusing these individuals and families, ended up having no punishment basically. So in my opinion, that was a very unfair situation because at the end the ones that lost the most, that suffered the most, were both those who were here unauthorized workers and the community at large. That's my opinion.
Well, as far as the punishment I think you're talking about some of the middle level managers that received -- I think somebody got two years and maybe lower. Those people cooperated so they earned a benefit in their sentence. If you look at the man who was behind this whole scheme, he's in prison for almost 30 years, and that's real time.
But not for any of these human –
I'll let you finish that up and I want to get Paul in because he's been sitting here nicely. But sometimes Al Capone was prosecuted on tax charges, still got him off the street. So it cleaned out the problem, whatever tool was used. And the prosecution did address the illegal immigration, the illegal workers even though those charges themselves weren't pursued that was part of the proof of the charges he was convicted on.
Paul I want to bring you in on the discussion. In Marshalltown they had a raid, not as large. When you hire, you're hiring engineers, middle skill, line folks. Since this Postville raid, what has it done to hiring for you trying to fill your facility?
I don't think it's changed the way we go about the actual hiring process. What it's done is really sent a strong, strong signal to the people that are going to be hiring and hopefully delving into the rules you have to follow. With that came another thing that still hangs in the air across the state of Iowa is that -- all kinds of trips and things you can stumble into when you are trying to do the right thing. People haven't really tried to take advantage of another pool of workers that are out there because there is fear that even if you try to do things the right way or try to do things the right way, you can get stung. I don't mean your company can get fined because I don't believe they were fined in the case of swift but how do you calculate the millions of dollars of effect this has on their business' reputation, on their customer's reputation. There are people with their toe in the pool but nobody dived into the huge pool that perhaps immigration reform can get into.
You had a young man doing co-op work. You had a case of a young man you hired out of high school. What was that all about?
We had a young man going into a program of computer design drafting at Marshalltown College. We had him come in as a co-op for a while and as a part time employee as he was going to school. He did a fantastic job. He had all the people skills you want. He had all kinds of bright future in front of him, we thought. So we kept him around. The day he got his degree, two-year degree in CAD Design and Drafting, we were no longer able to hire this young man, because he didn't have the ability to work here legally. He's still, I understand, in the process of trying to get the appropriate documentation to be here. He was brought here at age two or three years old. He was wonderful and we put a lot of money into him as a community through the school systems and the education system and it's frustrating that we've got that pool out there that we can't take advantage of because there is a need.
So how do you fix the policy to be able to hire him right after he graduates from college?
I think one of the things we need to do is understand that there's three things you can do in immigration. You can either completely open the borders. And we know that's not the answer, because we would have done that a long time ago. You can completely close the borders and we know that's not the answer. We need to admit the fact that we have a need. I've got a need right now for people with middle skills in our shop. Machine operators and machinists and welders and things. I'm telling you right now there is a huge need for those folks that we can't meet. Like a lot of other businesses we're doing what we do and we can't go out and get it from the schools or can't buy it, we make it ourselves. So we're trying to do it internally albeit out having ourselves involved in another pool of potential workers because of the immigration things that surround all of that.
If I may, why can't you meet that need with the pools that you have available? I'm interested in what the reasons are for the short comings?
We just don't see those skills coming out of the local community colleges or the local high schools.
Is that because it's not popular?
I don't know if it's that or just the fact we've told our kids forever, you should go to college. That might be the only time they really listen to us. They have gone to colleges rather than a technical curriculum or certificate program.
Do you have too many going to college and some don't have any skills and they're not employable period, or do you just not have people at all?
I think it's just the numbers. The ones going to college are gifted intellectually in a lot of cases or have a lot of family support. A lot of those that could go, maybe do not get the family support. So we're trying to break that cycle as well and just emphasize how critical education is to the survival of a community. We need more people in the stem skills areas. It's probably just numbers. I'm talking about machine operators and things like that. It's just a shortage of people that are available and the ones we want are working right now. So we have to try to get them from other people.
Sandra, help us -- not solve this policy but get us on the road, offer a couple of ideas. We are talking about a federal immigration bill, huge overhaul since 1986. Give me a couple points that can help fill Paul's needs and other needs.
One step already took place. That was the fair action for arrivals which could help the young man we're talking about to be able to get employment through that program. That was a good first step that took place last year. Now with immigration reform that is being presented by the senate proposal I think we are on the right track. However, there are some concerns to me that relate to the 40 years that we have had in the system where we were leaving priority to family unit versus what employers need. Okay? So in this time they are giving more priority to employers' needs and to some degree I would call it that it would be a stem of the highly skilled and the brightest. That speaks to the issue that you are bringing. Too many people maybe in college and not enough people in the middle who might be working on those machines. Those are the people that in my opinion if we pass this immigration reform bill will be filling out those jobs, those vocational technicians that we need in many parts of the country and as well the other cultural workers.
Why are those jobs attractive to people who are of other nationalities but not attractive to people who are U.S. citizens?
Because in my opinion or in my experience is because they do not have the same kind of support or means to go to a four-year degree and pursue that. That's in many occasions the case. In other instances, because naturally they have the ability for the interest to work with machines. They like it, they feel comfortable with that, and they can't afford to pay for that. Being here even if a legal permanent resident you can apply for a number of scholarships or loans from the government. Until you become a U.S. citizen that you can do that. That takes a long time. So in that case they say, well, I will pursue a two-year degree which actually was the case of one of my sons. He became an engineer in sound. He said this I can afford, I can pay for it, because there was no scholarships available for him.
Father, I'm going to ask you, from where you sit, what would be a good put into that bill? What would be a good part of that immigration bill that would help the folks of Postville in your area?
I do think that a little emphasis on family needs to be reintroduced. I was talking about the devastation of the raid and you were saying those are the ones that are illegal, half the town left because half the town is illegal. That isn't entirely true because a lot of folks without documentation that are married to an American citizen and have American citizens for children, but they had to leave because they valued keeping their families together. So the devastation of the raid and the kind of justice of the -- you're right that we are a nation of laws and things need to be addressed especially when they were as broken as they were before. I would like to see some kind of respect for family unity.
Bob, 844 page bill is what we have now being proposed.
I haven't read it.
I'm not asking if you read it.
Add another page or two to it, what would help that bill?
I've never been a policy maker, I'm always been a policy implementer. It's always been difficult. I know there are a lot of difficult issues. How do you take care of the issues that we have here now with the population that's here now without encouraging others to violate the law in hopes that they will be pulled in as well?
I can see how some of the administrative policy can be monetized. I hope they don't monetize the criminal process. That would be terrible.
It would send the wrong message and wouldn't give any trust to the government.
And it would be doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason. So it is a very difficult one. I know about family unity and I hate to sound harsh, they were together at home before they came here illegally. I know they were trying to better their circumstances and we all understand that, but there's a right way and a wrong way.
In some cases they were. Is what they're saying. I've got to get to Paul here quick. Final thoughts, Paul, about fixing the bill?
I think this, like a lot of other things we're seeing in Washington, D.C. now and even to a certain extent at the capital here in Des Moines is one that's going to call for compromise. There's no question in my mind that if we all draw lines in the sand we'll be in the same place we were back in 1986 when we started this antiquated system that we have. Nobody argues with the fact that we need to do something. Businesses are screaming that we need to do something. We have needs for people. Let's admit that we have needs let's admit we're a nation of laws, but let's compromise on the best answer for this thing. That's what we need to do.
If this bill extends farther do you feel it's harder to pass if it goes into summer, into fall, into winter?
Yes. But people feel like they have to give a lot more thought to this with amendments they're adding and everything else. But the bottom line is, we've got to do something.
That's Paul Gregorie from Marshalltown. Next to him Bob Tieg, Sandra Sanchez and Father Bahl. Thank you very much for this. It seems like a quick discussion. That's it for us tonight. You can watch this program again online at IPTV.org and we appreciate you watching this program called "Postville, Five Years Later."