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Postville detainee: ‘Congressmen, be our voice’
While meeting with three U.S. congressmen may not have done anything to immediately alleviate the plight of the men, women and children immigrants who remain in Postville, it did allow them to release some frustrations.
Just over 40 women, originally detained in the unprecedented May 12 immigration raid on the town’s kosher meatpacking plant, were released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement back into the town on humanitarian grounds to either care for children or for medical conditions. The women, along with three men similarly released, were fitted with ankle tracking devices. The Hispanic Caucus, all traveling at their own expense, came to eastern Iowa to hear their stories.
The congressional group was led by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and chairman of the caucusâ€™s immigration task force. He was joined by Rep. Joe Baca, a California Democrat and chairman of the caucus, and Rep. Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the caucusâ€™s task force on economic development.
Although wearing one of the tracking devices, Rutila Becerra wasn’t one of the many scheduled speakers on the three-hour program. But when her emotions bubbled over, few needed an English translation to understand the frustration and sorrow her voice contained.
“These women have been here two months, waiting for a response from Immigration [and Customs Enforcement],” she said in an escalating voice as she began to cry. “Please be the voice of these women… who have been condemned to live by charity. We are suffering from psychological pain. We are suffering from depression, and all our little children are infected as well.”
Because the women entered the country without proper documentation, they cannot legally earn wages. Because the women have the ankle devices, they cannot leave. Des Moines immigration attorney Sonia Parras Konrad, who represents many who were in attendance at the meeting, said the federal government told her that it may be January 2009 before the women have a hearing and learn more about their fate.
“I couldn’t help myself. There is lots of talk, but no one is really a voice for us or knows what we are going through. We were in the middle of this meeting and I felt it right here,” Becerra said. “At that point I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer and it all just came out.”
She openly wept and her voice shook uncontrollably as she described her son discussing the tracking device and asking if she was a murderer. Her voice rose again and many others in the room wiped tears as she told how men would approach her as if she was a prostitute.
“They say that they know I need the money,” she said.
While the congressmen have all read the news stories and seen the videos of the raid — the largest single-site action in the nation’s history, Gutierrez said coming to Postville and hearing the stories in person was important.
“When I eat vegetables, I know who harvested those vegetables,” Gutierrez told those who gathered Saturday morning in the fellowship hall at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville. “When I eat fruit, I know who’s hands last touched that fruit. When I enter a business and I step on the floor, I know who was there at 1 or 2 in the morning to clean it. When I got to a hotel to sleep, I know who cleaned and arranged that room. I know this in all aspects of my life: This is a human crisis.”
Gutierrez’s indignation was more evident when he spoke in a more private setting after the meeting.
“What people need to understand is that they basically changed the whole processing system,” he said. “They charged [the detained workers] with aggravated criminal identity theft. Yet, there had not been one complaint made to any governmental agency from anyone about their identity being stolen or being misused.”
Baca, who was moved to walk across the room and hug one emotional woman after she told her story, said in an interview after the meeting that he believes the Department of Justice should keep digging.
“Let’s face it, it was a kangaroo court,” he said. “They came in here and they prosecuted individuals within days, but yet [the government] has not done anything to the one that was guilty — and that’s the Agriprocessors company. We need to haul them in. Prosecute them.”
Sires, who declined to say what he believes should happen to plant owners and upper members of management, described his shock at the testimony he heard in Postville.
“I have never in all my years — I’ve been in this country 44 years — I have never heard of any such thing,” he said. “I think if [the Department of Homeland Security] used Postville to send a message to people not to come to this country, I think that is going to backfire. I think that when they write the story of this decade and immigration and they document what ICE has done with this raid, with guns and with shackles — The only wrong thing these people did was trying to get a job and access the American dream.”