Challenge and Community in the Heartland

Alan Jenkins

The nation’s eyes are again on Iowa this week, as its residents struggle with the aftermath of violent storms and devastating flooding. People from Cedar Rapids to Columbus Junction to Des Moines are dealing with the tragic loss of life and the grim destruction of homes and property.

The catastrophe has understandably eclipsed recent developments in Northeast Iowa, where residents are coping with the fallout from a different kind of trauma: the biggest immigration raid in US history, made by federal officials last month at a Postville, IA, meatpacking plant. Nearly 400 workers—more than one-third of the plant’s employees and nearly 10% of the town’s population—were taken into custody.

The two phenomena are, of course, very different, especially because the flooding and tornadoes have taken precious lives. But to some Iowans in the Postville area, the immigration raids and their aftermath have felt like a catastrophic event. Postville School superintendent David Strudthoff told the Washington Post [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/17/AR2008051702474.html] that the sudden incarceration of more than 10 percent of the town’s population “is like a natural disaster—only this one is manmade.”

After the Postville raid, half of the local school system’s 600 students were absent. Many businesses were shuttered and churches left empty. And many families and friends were separated. But, unlike this month’s terrible storms and twisters, the Postville raid could have happened differently, or not at all.

The rise in federal immigration raids makes for big headlines, and may placate some Americans who are understandably frustrated by our nation’s broken immigration system. But, ultimately, the raids are the wrong approach to a complex dilemma: they duck the real problems with our system while upending communities and creating mayhem. And they fail to live up to the ideals that we hold as a country.

When it comes to immigration, most Americans want workable solutions that uphold our national values and move our country forward together. Raids like the one in Postville fail that test on multiple counts. First, the raids are designed for show instead of effective problem-solving. There are some 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today working America’s farms, factories, and small businesses. The idea that these 12 million people can be rounded up and deported or somehow driven out of the country simply defies reason.

Second, the raids have failed to uphold our national values, which include accountability, due process, public safety, and community. Recent raids conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have swept up citizens, legal permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants, often on the basis of race or ethnicity. They are chaotic and disruptive to whole communities and, as a recent study by the Urban Institute found[http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411566_immigration_raids.pdf], they have particularly harmful effects on children and the people and institutions that care for them.

Recent raids around the country have left children stranded at school or daycare, denied many parents access to telephones to communicate with their families, and moved many parents to remote detention facilities out of the states in which they were arrested. In the Iowa raid, those arrested were taken by bus to Waterloo, IA, for processing, some 75 miles away, where they were processed at the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds.

Some readers may have little sympathy for the plight of these parents, or even their kids. If they wanted to avoid this kind of disruption or separation, some will say, they should not have come here in the first place. That response, while perhaps understandable, ignores both the urgent drive of all parents to give their kids a better life, and the reality of the immigrant experience in the United States. America’s 12 million undocumented immigrants are a part of our nation’s economic engine, and part of the social fabric of many, many communities around the country. They are caregivers and mechanics, laborers and professionals, college students and soldiers. They are among the volunteers fighting Iowa’s rising flood waters. They are a part of us.

Accordingly, recent raids have unsettled not only individual workers and their families, but also entire schools, workplaces, congregations, and larger communities. In Postville, Sister Mary McCauley of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church asked attendants to light a candle for 20 congregants arrested in the raid. “If we had 400 candles, we would have lit them all,” she told the Des Moines Register[http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2008806130370].

Third, by focusing on workers, the raids ignore the pervasive employer practices that negatively affect all Americans and our economy. Not one official of the company that owns the Postville plant, Agriprocessors, Inc.[ http://www.agriprocessor.com/], was hauled away or charged that day. This is true despite a string of alleged legal and ethical violations by Agriprocessors that have little to do with immigration but lots to do with unsafe and exploitative labor practices.

According to the Washington Post[http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/01/AR2008060101059.html], the Iowa Department of Labor found numerous workplace safety violations at the plant, including improper storage and handling of hazardous chemicals and inadequate training in the use of respirators. Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show workplace incidents that led to five amputations, broken bones, eye injuries, and hearing loss at the plant between 2001 and 2006. An affidavit filed by an immigration agent alleged that a supervisor blindfolded one worker and struck him with a meat hook. The state of Iowa is investigating allegations of child labor law violations at the plant, and the company recently lost a federal appellate court case over whether it could ignore a vote by workers at its Brooklyn distribution center to unionize.

A federal enforcement strategy concerned with public safety and accountability would have focused on these alleged practices which, if true, pose a real threat to economic opportunity within the state. And it would fix our broken immigration system so that immigrant workers can be realistically and fairly held accountable.

The next president should reject headline-grabbing factory raids that exacerbate problems instead of solving them. Instead, he should pursue smarter, more just solutions that serve our country’s best interests. A pathway to citizenship for immigrants willing to work, pay taxes and learn English must be combined with measures that hold employers, workers, and other institutions accountable to firm rules that are fairly applied. So long as millions of immigrants live in the shadows, their will be exploitation of the kind that happens in too many meatpacking plants, sweatshops, and corporate farms around the country. That, in turn, hurts all workers and communities.

By offering an earned pathway to citizenship and directing enforcement at employer practices that threaten all workers’ health and prosperity—sub-standard wages, dangerous conditions, exploitation, racial discrimination, child labor and fair labor violations—a new administration can promote shared prosperity along with fair, pragmatic, and legal immigration. Disruptive, arbitrary raids should give way to effective approaches that enforce our laws while upholding the fairness, accountability, and protection that are so important to our Democracy.

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