Rubashkin son arrested, Agriprocessors fined $10 million in kosher slaughterhouse probe

POSTVILLE, IOWA (JTA) — The former manager of Agriprocessors was arrested today on charges related to the hiring of illegal workers.

Sholom Rubashkin, 49, was arrested by immigration officials and was due to appear in federal court later today.

Documents filed with the court allege that Rubashkin conspired to harbor illegal immigrants at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. They further charge that he aided and abetted in the use of fake identification documents and identity theft.

Rubashkin is the highest-ranking Agriprocessors official to face criminal charges stemming from the May 12 federal immigration raid at the company’s Postville meatpacking plant. More than one-third of the company’s workforce was arrested.

According to the criminal complaint filed Thursday, Rubashkin provided funds that were used to purchase new identification for workers at Agriprocessors who were found to have bad papers. The complaint further alleges that Rubashkin asked a human resources officer to come in on a Sunday to process the new employment applications of several such workers.

Company representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Nathan Lewin, an attorney who represents Rubashkin’s father and the company owner Aaron Rubashkin, dismissed the arrest as unnecessary and motivated by federal law enforcement’s desire for good publicity.

“The arrest of Mr. Sholom Rubashkin today was a wholly unnecessary and gratuitous act by federal prosecutors apparently engaged in an unseemly competition with State of Iowa officials to capture headlines in a vendetta against Agriprocessors,” Lewin said.

Rubashkin’s arrest comes a day after Iowa Workforce Development announced it would levy nearly $10 million in fines against the company for alleged labor infractions.

In response to the action by the state labor agency, Agriprocessors CEO Bernard Feldman told The New York Times that he had “grave doubts as to the appropriateness of the claimed violations, and we also take issue with the intended sanction imposed per claim.”

Iowa Workforce Development, the state’s labor regulation agency, levied $9,988,200 in civil penalties against the kosher meat producer in Postville for four categories of infraction. The largest is for charging employees for frocks — the regulation agency claims the company is guilty of more than 90,000 such incidents, assessed at $100 per infraction.

“Once again, Agriprocessors has demonstrated a complete disregard for Iowa law,” said Dave Neil, the state’s labor commissioner. “This continued course of violations is a black mark on Iowa’s business community.”

According to Iowa Workforce Development, the company has 30 days to contest the penalties in writing before they become finalized. The department has an additional wage investigation under way that could lead to further penalties.
The fines are the latest challenge to Agriprocessors, once the nation’s largest producer of kosher meat before a massive federal immigration raid on May 12 resulted in the arrest of more than one-third of its workforce.

With its reputation taking a drubbing and concerns mounting that the company could lose its kosher certification, Agriprocessors hired a compliance officer and installed a new chief executive.

Company representatives did not immediately respond to JTA’s request for comment.

Agriprocessors raid slammed at Congressional hearings

WASHINGTON (JTA)—Witnesses at recent congressional hearings described the federal immigration raid on the country’s largest kosher plant as a travesty of justice, a national disgrace and an ambush.

But comparing the government detention facilities where 300 illegal workers arrested in the May 12 raid were detained to concentration camps was too much for one of the officials involved.

“Personally and professionally, I find that quite offensive,” said Marcy Forman, the director of the Office of Investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the lead agency in the raid. “Being of the Jewish faith, I equate concentration camps to the murder of over 6 million individuals.”

Forman told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on July 24 that the arrested workers had food, beds and televisions, as well as access to competent legal counsel.

“Most concentration camps that I’ve become aware of don’t possess those items,” she said.

The hearing, convened by the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), shifted the focus from Agriprocessors, the kosher meat producer that has been under intense scrutiny since the raid at its packing plant in Postville, Iowa, to the conduct of various federal agencies.

In a hearing room packed with onlookers, it was Forman and a senior Department of Justice official, Deborah Rhodes, in the dock as the government faced the first sustained examination of its policy of bringing criminal charges against illegal immigrants. In the past, the immigrants typically were held on administrative grounds and deported.

According to Forman and Rhodes, a near-heroic feat of law enforcement was performed in Postville. The government arrested and processed more than 300 non-English-speaking illegal immigrants in a matter of days, all while protecting their constitutional rights and making allowances for humanitarian concerns.

But a broad range of critics—from elected officials to legal experts to those with firsthand knowledge of the legal proceedings and the raid’s aftermath—painted a much different picture.

In their view, the government employed heavy-handed tactics, destroyed the economy and social fabric of a tiny town, and left a small Catholic church to care for hundreds of people robbed of their primary breadwinner.

Critics blasted the government’s so-called “fast tracking” of detainees, alleging that defendants were provided inadequate access to lawyers, some of whom were assigned to represent more than a dozen workers.

Perhaps most significant, the government is accused of presenting detainees with a near-impossible choice. Most could either plead guilty to aggravated identity theft or Social Security fraud, which under the agreement offered by prosecutors would send them to jail for five months before they were deported, or refuse the plea and go to trial.

With the latter option, the detainees could wait up to six months in jail without bail and face the possibility of a two-year mandatory sentence. Ultimately they still faced deportation, whether they were found guilty or not.

“Needless to say the scheme left little room for the fundamental protections offered by the Constitution,” David Leopold, the national vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the committee. “The spectacle was a national disgrace.”

Perhaps the most anticipated testimony was that of Erik Camayd-Freixas, a federally certified translator who had a front-row seat to the legal proceedings in Iowa.

Camayd-Freixas wrote a damning essay last month about the proceedings, earning him a news story in The New York Times and an accompanying editorial headlined “The Shame of Postville.” It was Camayd-Freixas who compared the detention facilities to a concentration camp.

He testified that the detainees, many of them illiterate, poor and with a spotty understanding of Spanish—many of them speak native tongues—had only a tenuous grasp of the charges pending against them. Guilty pleas were obtained under duress, Camayd-Freixas said, from defendants who didn’t know what a Social Security number was, let alone that they had stolen one.

“I saw the Bill of Rights denied,” Camayd-Freixas said. “And it all appeared to be within the framework of the law.”

While the committee dealt mainly with issues related to the Postville raid, the larger and thornier debate over national immigration policy hovered over the hearing. Democratic and Republican members traded barbs over the issue during the nearly six-hour inquiry, which was interrupted twice for floor votes.

“We have a schizophrenic country,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), noting that calls for a temporary worker program would fail unless enforcement was taken seriously.

Lungren said the hearings seemed to focus on the supposed failures of a government agency, but in fact further investigation might find that Immigration and Customs Enforcement did things properly.

“We’ll keep looking,” Lofgren interjected.

While Republican members tended to focus on the need for stepped-up enforcement and Democrats more on the supposed violations of individual rights, all seemed to agree on one thing: The nation’s immigration system is badly in need of repair.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who represents part of Postville, reiterated his concern that the government is focusing its enforcement on the wrong people. It is the employers, Braley told the committee, who need to be prosecuted.

“There is no doubt that workers who violate the law need to be held accountable,” Braley said. “However, while ICE has been effective in finding and detaining undocumented employees who may have broken the law, I’m equally concerned that the employer, Agriprocessors, be fully investigated and prosecuted for any violations of the law.”

Two supervisors at Agriprocessors have pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting the use of illegal documents. A warrant is out for the arrest of a third supervisor.

The owners of the company have denied any knowledge of wrongdoing.

Agriprocessors raid fallout continues: Jewish liberals plan rally in Postville

NEW YORK (JTA)—An interfaith coalition is planning to demonstrate next week in Postville, Iowa, in support of justice for workers and comprehensive immigration reform.

Spearheaded by Jewish Community Action, a Minnesota social justice group, the rally comes in response to allegations of worker mistreatment at Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States.

The rally, scheduled for July 27, will follow by one day a visit to Postville by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The group, led by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), will meet with the families of plant workers, as well as community organizers and local religious leaders.

“An immigration system that is predicated on fear tactics and piecemeal, deportation-only policies profoundly worsens our immigration crisis by creating broken homes and tearing the fabric of our society,” Gutierrez said. “It is my sincere hope that in bringing the stories of the parents, children and workers of Postville back to Congress, our lawmakers will see the very real consequences of punitive actions in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.”

Both the congressional visit and the rally promise to keep the spotlight on Agriprocessors, whose Postville facility was the target of a massive immigration raid May 12.

In the wake of the raid, the plant’s workers claimed they were underpaid and made to suffer an atmosphere of rampant sexual harassment, among other allegations. Company officials have denied the charges.

Among the groups supporting the rally are the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish Labor Committee and Workmen’s Circle. Funds for transportation were provided by Mazon, a Jewish hunger relief group.

“There are two targets here,” Jane Ramsey, the executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, told JTA. “One is a message to the government for comprehensive immigration reform on the one hand, and secondly to Agriprocessors for the permanent implementation of livable wages, health-care benefits and worker safety.”

The plant’s purchase in 1987 by the Brooklyn butcher Aaron Rubashkin injected a much-needed dose of economic vitality into Postville, which was a struggling farm community. With a workforce of approximately 1,000, Agriprocessors was said to be the largest employer in northern Iowa.

The arrest of nearly half its employees in the raid has significantly cut the plant’s production.

Agriprocessors is hardly alone. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, 4,940 workplace arrests were made in the 2007 fiscal year, up from 510 in 2002. As of May, the agency has made 3,750 arrests this year.

Critics say such arrests are devastating to workers and their families and can have crippling effects on communities. Jewish Community Action raised $10,000 for Postville familes, according to its executive director, Vic Rosenthal. Jewish Council on Urban Affairs has delivered another $5,000.

“We think that this was a very poorly conceived action by ICE that hurt people and didn’t bring any further safety to you and me,” Ramsey said. “Who did this help? They swept into a little town of 2,500 that has now been devastated, that has a just-opened playground and now there are no children for that playground.”

Steven Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Study and a leading critic of the mainstream Jewish position on immigration, says such stories are sad on a human level but are not a basis for making policy.

“I can’t get bleary-eyed about these people,” Steinlight said. “They’re here in violation of federal immigration law. You don’t know if these people are from Mexico or from al-Qaida. They have engaged in identity theft. They have engaged in felonies. These are not minor issues. I don’t consider the violation of America’s sovereignty to be a minor issue.”

While Steinlight defends the raid as a legitimate exercise in law enforcement, he shares the sense of outrage over allegations of worker mistreatment even as he opposes the call for a path to legalization for Postville workers.

“The reason they’re hired is because they are exploitable,” Steinlight said. “And if they were legalized, they wouldn’t be any better off.”

Chaim Abrahams, an Agriprocessors representative, said the company is commited to abiding by all state and federal laws.

“Mr. Steinlight has apparently joined the chorus of those who accept the allegations and several newspaper accounts as fact,” Abrahams said. “Agriprocessors will have no further comment on those allegations, as they are part of an ongoing investigation. It merely urges all fair-minded people to reserve judgment until this investigation process has run its course.”

The demonstration is scheduled to begin with an interfaith service at St. Bridget’s, the Catholic church that has taken the lead in providing relief to immigrant families. It will be followed by a march through town to the plant and then back to the church for a rally. Organizers expect about 1,000 people to attend.

“We think that Jews as consumers of kosher food need to understand the importance of who is producing the food and how they get treated, how they get paid,” Rosenthal said. “We really want to energize the Jewish community to think much more clearly about the role they play as consumers.”