Sunday, September 7, 2008

What Happened in Postville?

This is an information sheet I prepared on what happened in Postville, Iowa, on May 12, 2008, what was then the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. More information can be found at

On May 12, 2008, hundreds of agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, raided Agriprocessors Inc., the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the United States, in Postville, Iowa (population 2,273).

At the time of the raid, Agriprocessors employed 968 workers, about 75 percent of whom were thought to be unauthorized immigrants, the majority of them from rural regions of Guatemala, a country known for human rights abuses and beset by crippling poverty. The raid took place at 10 a.m.; 390 workers were arrested (314 men and 76 women). Only five of the 390 arrested had a prior criminal record. Warrants had been issued for 697 workers.

The raid instantly turned Postville into what resembled a ghost town and continues to have a devastating impact on the local economy. The community has lost more than a quarter of its population. Many Latinos who were not caught in the raid fled or went into hiding. In the wake of the raid, many other U.S. communities with similar demographics have experienced rumors of raids and widespread fear that their community would be next.

Those arrested “were frisked and told to remove any sweaters or heavy garments. Handcuffs were placed on their wrists and attached to their waists. Their feet were also cuffed.” According to one eyewitness, workers were lined up “like cattle” (Des Moines Register, May 14–15, 2008).

Investigations of worker abuse, employment of underage workers, and violations of labor laws at the plant were interrupted if not altogether halted by the raid. Immigrant workers were generally underpaid, according to the Des Moines Register: “Another plant worker told federal officials that undocumented workers were paid $5 an hour for their first few months before receiving a pay increase to $6 per hour. The minimum wage in Iowa is $7.25 an hour.”

Since the raid, a low-level manager at Agriprocessors, Juan Carlos Guerrero-Espinoza, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to hire illegal immigrants and one count of aiding and abetting the hiring of illegal immigrants. He faces a possible ten-year prison sentence and a maximum $500,000 fine. A second supervisor, Martin De La Rosa-Loera, pleaded guilty under an agreement with prosecutors to aiding and abetting the harboring of undocumented immigrants. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In August, the Iowa Division of Labor Services cited Agriprocessors for 31 safety violations and proposed fining the company $101,000.

In the wake of the raid, rumors circulated that federal agents were going door-to-door in Postville in search of illegal immigrants. With helicopters prowling overhead, many of the workers’ families, frightened that ICE would come for them next, took refuge at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church. By evening nearly four hundred people had gathered there; they stayed for the next six days because they were afraid to go home.

Hundreds of families were torn apart by the raid, and fear was rampant in the community. Postville’s school superintendent said that about a third of the elementary and middle school students were absent the day after the raid: “We had 10 percent of our entire community arrested in 12 hours. . . . It’s just like having a tornado that wiped out an entire part of town.”

Parents and teachers struggled to answer children’s questions: “Are the black helicopters going to come back and kill us, too?” Others feared that their parents would be taken away as well. Panic broke out in the high school as news of the raid arrived via text messages on students’ cell phones.

Of those arrested, 56 mothers were released on humanitarian grounds, to care for unattended children. Those released were fitted with GPS ankle bracelets that serve as tracking devices so that ICE can monitor their whereabouts while they await prosecution. The bracelets, which are tight and dig into the ankle and irritate the skin, must be worn 24 hours a day. While they wait in legal limbo, not allowed to work or to return to their home countries, the mothers have no means of supporting their families other than accepting charity. According to one mother, “Before, we tolerated everything they did to us at the plant. We worked very hard, but we lived free. Now, we have no work. We are not free. And we have no idea what will happen to us.”

Immigration proceedings usually involve civil, not criminal, statutes; but 260 of the workers from Postville were charged with the felony of “aggravated identity theft” and “Social Security fraud,” charges that apply to the use of someone else’s identification in order to commit a crime, not in order to procure employment.

“Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the organization has gathered information indicating that detainees [were not] given adequate time to meet with attorneys ‘and that defense attorneys [were] being overwhelmed (with) requests to represent far more clients than is advisable—or perhaps even ethical’ ” (Des Moines Register, May 14, 2008).

Many of those charged are the sole support for their families, not only family members living here in the United States but also those living in their home countries. Their primary concern throughout the proceedings was the well-being of those depending on them for their survival.

Federal officials set up temporary courtrooms in the National Cattle Congress fairground in nearby Waterloo, where those arrested were held, processed, tried, and sentenced with unprecedented speed.

The workers were denied meetings with immigration attorneys and were fast-tracked through criminal court proceedings that took only four days for all 269 of them.

Criminal defense attorneys warned of violations of due process. Cases were not reviewed individually, and no individual circumstances were taken into account. All the cases were treated exactly alike. The system was designed for the wholesale imposition of guilt. It is unlikely that the workers understood the charges against them.

Each of those charged was offered a deal: If you plead guilty to “knowingly using a false Social Security number,” the more serious charge of “aggravated identify theft” will be withdrawn and you will be sentenced to five months in jail followed by deportation without a hearing.

The workers had no choice but to accept the plea agreement and to waive their right to have their case reviewed by an immigration court before deportation, thereby losing whatever chance they may have had to gain authorization to live and work in the United States.

The deal also ensured that the workers would have little chance of legally reentering the United States.


Nigel Duara, Grant Schulte, and William Petroski. “ID Fraud Claims Bring State’s Largest Raid.” Des Moines Register, May 13, 2008.

Susan Saulny. “Hundreds Are Arrested in U.S. Sweep of Meat Plant.” New York Times, May 13, 2008 (

Ben Stone, “Statement Concerning Due Process after ICE Raid in Postville, Iowa.” ACLU of Iowa, May 13, 2008 (

Grant Schulte, Jennifer Jacobs, and Jared Strong. “Day After Churns Up Charges, Emotions.” Des Moines Register, May 14, 2008.

Nigel Duara. “Informed about Raid, Many Employees Hid.” Des Moines Register, May 14, 2008.

“Raid Prompts Questions about Government Actions.” Des Moines Register, May 15, 2008.

William Petroski and Grant Schulte, “Detainees Charged, Shuffled to Jails.” Des Moines Register, May 16, 2008.

Grant Schulte. “Detainees to Be Jailed, Then Deported in Deal.” Des Moines Register, May 20, 2008.

Jane Norman. “Immigrants Feel Distress, Shock, Nun Says.” Des Moines Register, May 21, 2008.

“270 Illegal Immigrants Sent to Prison in Federal Push.” New York Times, May 24, 2008 (

Erik Camayd-Freixas, “Interpreting after the Largest ICE Raid in US History: A Personal Account.” June 13, 2008 (

Julia Preston. “An Interpreter Speaking Up for Migrants.” New York Times, July 11, 2008 (

Editorial: “The Shame of Postville,” New York Times, July 13, 2008 (

“Court Interpreter Breaks Confidentiality Code to Speak Out for Workers Rounded Up in Largest Immigration Raid in U.S. History.” Democracy Now! July 14, 2008 (

Editorial: “‘The Jungle’ Again.” New York Times, August 2, 2008 (

Monica Rohr. “A Small Town Struggles after Immigration Raid.” My Way, August 16, 2008 (

Lynda Waddington. “Agriprocessors Cited for 31 Safety Violations.” Iowa Independent, August 22, 2008 (

Bekah Porter. “Religious Groups Provide Shelter from the Storm.” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, August 24, 2008.

Tony Leys. “Culver Wins Praise for Rebuking Meat Plant.” Des Moines Register, August 25, 2008.

Henry C. Jackson. “Town Wonders If It’s Next to Face Immigration Raid.” Associated Press, August 26, 2008 (

Susan Donaldson James. “Immigration Raids Cripple Small Towns.” ABC News Online, August 29, 2008 (

Associated Press. “Iowa: Defendant Wants Judge Removed.” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, September 4, 2008.