Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 389 workers when they raided the Agriprocessors Inc. meat packaging plant in Postville, Iowa, on May 12. Federal prosecutors have billed the raid as "the largest criminal worksite enforcement ever in the United States."
The raid gained congressional and national media attention because of its scale, the severity of the charges brought against those arrested, and the unusual nature of the legal proceedings.
Federal prosecutors charged the Agriprocessors workers with aggravated identity theft, false use of Social Security numbers, illegal reentry into the United States after being deported, and fraudulent use of alien registration cards. This distinguished the Postville raid from most workplace actions, where unauthorized workers are generally charged with administrative violations of immigration law and not with federal criminal charges.
Immigrant-rights advocates complained that the criminal charges mark an escalation in the tactics the federal government is using to crack down on illegal immigration. They fret that a similar approach will characterize future worksite enforcement operations.
Of the 389 arrested, 306 were charged criminally and almost immediately after arrest. Less than 10 days after ICE arrested the workers, federal judges presided over mass judicial hearings, which were held in makeshift courtrooms set up on the grounds of the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa.
Groups of up to 10 defendants entered the courtrooms, pled guilty, and were sentenced together. Two hundred ninety-seven of the detained immigrants pled guilty and were sentenced within four days.
Many of the workers apparently pled guilty to lesser criminal offenses to avoid prosecution for criminal charges that carry longer prison terms. In total, 270 of them were sentenced to five months or more in prison, and almost all agreed to immediate deportation after serving their prison sentences.
Lawyers and immigrant advocates have voiced several concerns about the post-Postville judicial proceedings, including the lack of meaningful access to defense attorneys during the mass hearings, the lack of immigration law expertise among the court-appointed attorneys, and the fact that many court-appointed attorneys were asked to represent groups of up to 10 immigrants at the same time.
Lawyers have also pointed to a U.S. federal district court press release issued the day of the raid that referred to the prosecution of "numerous illegal aliens." The court issued the press release before any of the detained workers were charged with, or found guilty of immigration violations.
Another unique aspect of the raid was the number and spectrum of federal and local law enforcement agencies that participated (see Sidebar for list).
Immigrant advocates and several members of Congress have also expressed concerns over the impact of the Agriprocessors raid — and other ICE raids — on local communities.
Law Enforcement Agencies Participating in the Postville Raid
At a hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee soon after the Postville raid, immigrant advocates and education professionals testified about the traumatizing effects on children whose parents are arrested.
Postville's school superintendent reported that about a third of the elementary and middle school students in Postville were absent after the Agriprocessors raid, leaving the school district's future in doubt. The mayor of Postville expressed similar anxiety about the raid's economic impact, since 10 percent of the town's population were arrested within a day.
Labor advocates argue that the ICE raid compromised an ongoing federal investigation into complaints of worker abuse and child-labor law violations at Agriprocessors because many potential witnesses are now facing deportation.
Similarly, Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA), who represents Postville, and other members of Congress have questioned why no criminal charges have been brought against the Agriprocessors owner and management.
The raid comes against the backdrop of increased worksite enforcement by the Bush administration. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff has stressed increased worksite enforcement as an essential component in preventing illegal immigration.
According to government records, ICE made 4,077 administrative arrests and 863 criminal arrests during worksite enforcement operations in fiscal 2007, roughly 45 times the number of criminal worksite arrests in fiscal 2001.
Media reports have speculated that the Bush administration has increased the number and severity of the raids to motivate Congress to pass comprehensive immigration legislation.
Since Congress failed to pass an immigration bill last summer, Chertoff and ICE chief Julie Myers have publicly stated that they have been left with no choice but to increase enforcement to convince the public that the government is serious about enforcing the law.
Policy Beat in Brief
E-Verify and Government Contractors. President Bush signed an Executive Order June 9 requiring all federal-government contractors to use the federal E-Verify system to ensure their employees are authorized to work in the United States. E-Verify, formerly known as Basic Pilot, allows employers to check employee names and Social Security numbers against federal immigration and Social Security databases. While the Bush administration has promoted E-Verify as a critical tool for preventing the hiring of unauthorized workers, civil-libertarian and immigrant advocacy groups have criticized the program, saying E-Verify raises serious privacy concerns and has high error rates.
Medical Care for Detained Immigrants. Following a series of highly critical news reports on the medical care provided to immigrants in ICE custody, the House immigration subcommittee held a hearing in which panel members questioned ICE Chief Julie Myers about misdiagnosed or mistreated conditions and the denial of emergency medical care. Myers responded that her agency has taken steps in recent years to improve medical care, including implementing an extensive suicide prevention program and establishing a Detention Facilities Inspection Group. House immigration subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) recently introduced the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act of 2008, which would require ICE to report all deaths in its custody to the DHS inspector general within 48 hours of the time of death.
H-2B Regulations. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued new H-2B visa regulations to encompass temporary jobs that last up to three years, thus extending the previous limit of 10 months. The new rules also allow employers to submit H-2B applications directly to the federal government, rather than to state workforce agencies, and to give an oath instead of proving they could not find qualified U.S. workers. The H-2B visa category permits foreign-born workers to fill temporary, nonagricultural labor needs. DOL Secretary Elaine Chao said the new regulations will cut application processing times and make it easier for employers to use the program. Critics charge the regulations undermine job opportunities, wages, and working conditions of U.S. workers.
Farmworker Legalization Bill. The Senate's most recent attempt to create a legalization program for unauthorized agricultural workers died just days after it was added to a war spending bill. The Emergency Agriculture Relief Act, sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), would have allowed farmworkers who could prove they worked in the United States for the past four years to gain legal status for the next five years. Members of Congress have introduced similar bills as either stand-alone measures or as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Opposition to this bill came from members who said it would grant "amnesty" to unauthorized agricultural workers, and members who oppose piecemeal measures in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.
State and Local Policy Beat in Brief
South Carolina Immigration Enforcement Bill. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford signed into law a bill (H. 4400) that penalizes employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers and restricts state benefits to unauthorized immigrants. South Carolina employers who are found to have knowingly hired unauthorized immigrants will have their state operating licenses revoked. The law also requires state agencies to verify the legal status of adults who apply for public benefits, and it bans unauthorized immigrants from buying guns, attending public colleges, and receiving state scholarships. The South Carolina law does not mandate employer participation in the federal E-Verify program, but it states that employers must use either E-Verify or a modified version of the I-9 employment verification system to determine if employees are work authorized.
Farmers Branch Housing Ordinance. U.S. District Judge Sam A. Lindsay struck down a controversial housing ordinance in Farmers Branch, Texas, that would have barred landlords from renting apartments to unauthorized immigrants and required landlords to verify tenants' immigration status. After the city passed the housing ordinance in January 2007, a group of immigrant advocates and legal immigrants in Farmers Branch sued the city, saying that federal law preempted the housing ordinance and that the ordinance violated the due-process clause of the U.S. Constitution. In his ruling, Judge Lindsay agreed that the ordinance was preempted under the Constitution's Supremacy Clause.
Phoenix Police Department's Executive Order. Everyone arrested in Phoenix will be questioned about their immigration status following a second round of changes to the Phoenix Police Department's Operations Order 1.4, which lays out when city police officers can contact ICE. Officers will have the authority to contact Immigration ICE when, as a result of questioning, they have reason to believe an individual is in the United States illegally. The recent changes came after Phoenix police officers and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association objected to the first set of proposed changes, claiming these changes did not give Phoenix police officers sufficient latitude in questioning individuals about their immigration status.