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Lessons from Postville: There is a Better Way

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Impending Anniversary of Immigration Raid Offers Tragic Reminder of Past, Hope for Future
As we approach the one year anniversary of the watershed raid on the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, IA, we reflect on the tragic events of last May and what we’ve learned from the families and communities that bear the brunt of our nation’s broken immigration policy.

“The Postville raid has become a nationwide symbol of what is wrong with our current immigration policy and previous immigration enforcement priorities.  While the government’s actions in the Agriprocessors raid showed an ugly side of America that I hardly recognize, the response of the Postville community and its neighbors showed the compassion and humanity that represents the best of America,” said Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice.

Next Tuesday, the first anniversary of the 2008 Postville raid, more than forty churches and faith community organizations in more than twenty states are hosting commemoration vigils to remember the raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant.  Last May 12th, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agents arrested nearly 400 immigrant workers at the Agriprocessors plant.  Despite horrific stories of worker abuse, the government prioritized the deportation of immigrant workers over an ongoing investigation of labor violations by their employer.  Over 300 of the workers were charged with crimes related to identity fraud and shuttled through cookie cutter plea deals to serve time in federal prison before deportation.  The rapid pace of the legal proceedings against the undocumented workers prosecuted in Postville also imperiled an ongoing labor investigation against the plant owners.

The Postville raid was one of the most extreme examples of the misplaced priorities of the previous Administration, where prosecution of immigrant workers was prioritized over the enforcement of labor standards and other criminal and civil violations committed by plant managers and owners.  As America’s Voice has documented, the Bush Administration consistently focused its enforcement efforts on garden variety workers at the expense of holding unscrupulous employers accountable.  In both 2007 and 2008, 98% of all immigration-related arrests at workplaces and nearly 90% of all criminal arrests at workplaces were of undocumented workers, rather than their employers.

Some policymakers, such as Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) understand the tragedy of the Postville raid and how it served as a poster child for our broken immigration system.  In the aftermath of the raids and their devastating effect on the surrounding Postville community, Rep. Braley called on the federal government to focus on unscrupulous employers, instead of just the undocumented workers.  Other policymakers, such as Rep. Steve King (R-IA), remain convinced that the raid was a good idea.  In a December 2008 op-ed in the Des Moines Register, King praised the immigration raid in Postville, calling it a “step in the right direction.”

Recent developments in the past several weeks are leading us closer to smart and effective immigration enforcement strategies, plus action on comprehensive immigration reform.  The news of the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling on the Bush Administration’s immigrant worker prosecution strategy shows that the government doesn’t have a blank check when it comes to coercive enforcement.  The Obama Administration also recently changed the focus of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) efforts to employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers or commit other crimes, rather than prioritizing the arrest and prosecution of immigrant workers.  And the President continues to talk about the need for comprehensive immigration reform and lay out his intention to work with Congress on legislation this year.

Finally, the two largest labor federations in America, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Change to Win (CTW) have agreed on a common framework for comprehensive immigration reform.  Their plan includes a path to legal status for undocumented workers and a commission to regulate the entry of workers in the future, in addition to labor protections and enforcement standards to guard against the types of abuses that occurred at Agriprocessors and largely went unpunished.

“It is time to turn the page on the failed tactics of the past, and move forward with an American solution to the broken immigration system,” said Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice.  “We have it within our grasp to address comprehensive immigration reform this year in a way that improves the situation in American families, communities, and workplaces across the country.  We must learn from what happened in Postville, and fix the immigration system once and for all.”

America’s Voice — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.