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Raids on Swift, Agriprocessors highlighted in immigration policy critique
A national commission investigating immigration enforcement under the Bush administration has released a comprehensive new report documenting the impact immigration raids have had on families, workplaces and communities across the country. The report, released last week, was drawn directly from investigations into several immigration raids, including two at Iowa workplaces: Agriprocessors in Postville and JBS-Swift in Marshalltown.
During a conference call Thursday, the authors said the report, Raids on Workers: Destroying Our Rights, is the culmination of nearly two years of regional hearings, interviews with victims and analysis of immigration enforcement tactics. The commission writing the report was comprised of former elected officials, labor leaders, academics and immigration and legal experts. The group not only documented past raids, but provided recommendations for reforming the immigration system.
“The commission was formed to examine allegations of abuse and misconduct by the Bush administration during the course of immigration raids,” Joe Hansen, chairman of the commission and president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said during a conference call Thursday to formally announce the report. “In particular, it was created in response to a 2006 raid of six meatpacking plants in America’s heartland, conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. During that raid more than 12,000 workers, most of them U.S. citizens and legal residents, were herded together at gunpoint and denied access to phones, bathrooms, families and legal counsel.”
“It shows a law enforcement agency with really the most profound disrespect for the law and our nation’s Constitution,” she said. “In reading this report, I am particularly struck how profoundly unconstitutional most these raids were as they were carried out as a practice. What we saw again and again and heard about again and again were agents coming in and seizing all the workers without a legal basis, entering into people’s homes without warrants and separating people based on their race and ethnicity. … These were wanton violations of the fourth and fifth amendments.”
The commission, at the conclusion of its investigation, determined that ICE, under the direction of the Bush administration, repeatedly trampled on workers’ constitutional rights.
“These were not isolated incidents,” said Hansen, “but systemic problems that occurred in nearly every region of the country.”
Even those commissioners who held basic knowledge of the raids were shocked at what they heard during the course of the investigation.
“When I [joined the commission], of course, I had read about the raids and had even talked with some of the raid victims here in the Bay area,” said Bill Ong Hing, commissioner and a professor of law and Asian American studies at the University of California at Davis. “But when we traveled around the country, I was totally shocked at the level of abuse that ICE visited upon the victims of the various sites that we went to, including the Swift plants.”
Hing said that the only act committed by the workers was going to their job site. In response, ICE agents entered the sites, “weapons drawn and with no warrants for the individuals” that were detained.
“What we saw was the deprivation of prescription drugs and other medical care that a lot of these workers needed, the separation of newborns from nursing mothers, mocking of many of the people who were arrested and on and on,” he said. “What we also saw was that the communities themselves were also devastated. … Not only did the raid occur nearby, but the town was basically made into a ghost town after that. People were chased into the woods. Families were afraid of coming back into town. … The racism we saw that was inherent in these raids was awful.”
In addition to the family trauma documented in the report, commissioners also spoke with local officials and law enforcement who reported that the raids disrupted and sometimes destroyed relationships carefully crafted between immigrant populations and government.
Mike Graves, a worker at the JBS-Swift plant in Marshalltown at the time of the raid, also joined the commissioners on the conference call to provide a personal narrative of what happened to him on the morning of the federal immigration raid at Swift.
“December 12, 2006 started off as a normal day,” Graves, a U.S. citizen born and raised in Waterloo, said. “As we started our production at 6 o’clock, our supervisors came out to the floor and instructed us to go to the cafeteria. So we took our equipment off, our knives and everything, and hung them up on the rack. Me and two other Hispanic people proceeded to go to the cafeteria. But as we took our normal route to the cafeteria, it was ICE agents that met up with us.”
The agents, according to Graves, had guns drawn and requested the workers show identification. The workers explained their their IDs were in their lockers. So the trio was searched for weapons, handcuffed with hands behind their backs and taken to the locker room.
“[An ICE agent] asked me where I lived [and I told him],” Graves said. “Then he asked me where my parents lived and I told him ‘Mississippi.’ He asked if I knew the way to Mississippi. I told him that I did, that we traveled there every summer. He started laughing.”
Handcuffed, Graves was left to sit on a bench in the locker room for about a half hour while agents took his identification to another part of the plant. When the agent returned, Graves was given his identification back and asked to place it back in his pants pocket in his locker. Two agents spoke in Spanish and laughed, but Graves didn’t understand what they were saying. When he requested to use the bathroom, they denied his request, and left him sitting on the bench for roughly an hour longer.
“He finally came back and told me that I needed to go to the cafeteria,” Graves said.
“This cafeteria only holds 50 people on a normal day, but there were about 200 people in there. The food supply was cut off. The water supply was cut off. There was a pay phone in there, but an ICE agent had been posted in front of it so that we couldn’t phone anyone. They also wouldn’t let us use cell phones. Anyone who requested to go to the bathroom were told ‘no’ and that they had to wait until they were processed.”
Processing was done in groups of 10. Workers were escorted, without coats in 20-degree snowy weather, from the cafeteria to another section of the plant that Graves said was also overcrowded with roughly 800 workers.
“As we were walking, there were ICE agents along the perimeter with guns drawn… watching the outsides of the building to make sure nobody would run or try to get away,” he said. “When they took us in the other building and we stood there for awhile — up to eight hours — before we were allowed to go home. We weren’t fed anything until this was all over and done with.”
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack agreed to serve on the commission, but he was later appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture by President Obama. He did not participate in the conference call announcing the report. To date, his office has released no formal statement on the matter.
In 2001, while speaking before the Iowa Legislature, then-Gov. Vilsack touted the benefits of immigrants to the state’s economy, while pushing for an initiative he named “New Iowans Project.”
“[Our state] was built by people who came here from all over the world,” he said. “From the beginning, immigrants have come to our state and helped it prosper. As they became new Iowans, and added to our economic wealth, their diversity also brought strength and cultural richness to our state.”
The initiative began with pilots in three Iowa communities — Mason City, Fort Dodge and Marshalltown — intended to lure immigrant populations into Iowa. Vilsack, who was publicly upset with how the Swift raid in Marshalltown was handled, penned a letter to Michael Chertoff, head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, indicating that state officials would no longer cooperate with federal immigration officials.
“[Federal immigration officials] chose to pursue to alitary path that limited the operation’s effectiveness, created undue hardship for many not at fault, and led to resentment and further mistrust of government,” Vilsack wrote in the letter.
“These systemic failures to communicate with the public and news organizations created an information vacuum that was filled with unreliable and unverifiable rumors that further undermined the public’s trust and confidence in both the state and federal government.”