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Both sides of immigration debate agree: employers should be held accountable
Anyone driving on Lawler Street in downtown Postville Sunday might have found it difficult to find a common thread between the two groups shouting phrases about immigration from opposite sides of the street. Yet, members of the immigration debate who hold opposing viewpoints on many of the difficult nuances of the debate do hold common ground: Employers should not be given a free pass.
“[The companies] are just as guilty,” said Mona Kilborn, a 59-year-old woman from Marshalltown whose mother died in October 2007 when a van the family rode in was struck by another vehicle being driven by an illegal immigrant. “If there wasn’t a magnet to come, [illegal immigrants] wouldn’t be coming. So, the companies are wrong — just wrong — and there should be a price to pay.”
Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the U.S. and the site of the unprecedented May 12 immigration raid that sparked the demonstrations in Postville on Sunday, has remained largely unscathed. While the vast majority of the 389 workers detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement were quickly and efficiently charged and convicted on criminal charges, primarily identity theft, only two members of plant middle management face charges for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. The plant is owned by a wealthy and politically-connected Orthodox Jewish family, led by patriarch Aaron Rubashkin. The two supervisors facing charges are both Hispanic.
Susan Tully, a national field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, minces few words when discussing illegal immigration. She firmly believes that anyone entering the country should have to go through legal channels. She also believes that the plant and its owners have a responsibility to the Postville community.
“Agriprocessors, if they want to be a good neighbor and do good business, needs to step up,” she said. “They need to offer those jobs at a good living wage to American workers who would then come and do those jobs. But instead — and like many other American employers — they chose to take cheap labor.”
Tully said that employers who choose the route she outlined are showing they care about little more than their own financial reports.
“They are willing to employ cheap labor because it provides them with a bigger profit margin,” she said. “They do it at the expense of you and I and the people of Postville who get to pick up the costs of schooling, health care and all of the social services and everything else that this particular group of people brings with them — because they are poor; because they are uneducated. [The workers] are being used.”
Janelle Mueller, an employee of the Des Moines-based Children and Families Urban Ministries, came to Postville Sunday because she disagrees with the ICE action on May 12. She also believes that Agriprocessors has not been held to the same level of accountability as the workers — people she believes are much less able to understand the complexities of U.S. law.
“This is about money,” Mueller said. “It’s all about money. … The company doesn’t seem to care about the human beings that are working or the conditions they are working in. Unfortunately, I don’t see an end either. It’s like a pyramid effect. There ought to be a big mirror as you come into town and members of Agriprocessors management should be forced to look into it before they come into work. Maybe then they’d realize what they are doing to people.”
According to Tully, companies like Agriprocessors who are caught employing illegal immigrants are “the backbone of the issue.”
“If American employers wouldn’t give illegal aliens jobs, if they would actually do everything they should in their power to make sure the people working for them have a legal presence in this country, we wouldn’t have illegal immigration at the rate we have it. So, I do lay this squarely on the back of America’s business people.”
Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, admitted it was important for him and his organization to attend the rally Sunday not just from a human rights standpoint, but also to provide a different face and voice from the Jewish community.
“As Jews and Jewish organizations, it is important for us that people from our community are at the top of how other people in the community get treated, regardless of their nationality or where they come from,” he said. “We want all companies to do better, but it bothers us more when workers in a Jewish plant are not getting treated well. Business owners and management have responsibilities and should be held accountable when they don’t take those to heart.”
Christopher Reed, a Republican who will face U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin on the November ballot, was the only non-local politician who traveled to Postville. He said the government needs to start charging both the employers who hire illegal immigrants as well as those who rent residences to them.
“If these illegal aliens don’t have places to work and don’t have places to live, there not going to be coming here in the droves that we see now,” Reed said. “We need to get programs set up so that we know exactly how many workers we need each year. We need to figure out exactly how many people are coming in, and know who is coming into our nation. Simply, we need to enforce the laws that we have on the books at this time.”