Worker advocates and lawmakers say the fact that nearly 400 workers were arrested in the May 12 raid at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville - or more than one-third of the total number of employees - proves that company officials must have known they were hiring illegal immigrants.
"Until we enforce our immigration laws equally against both employers and employees who break the law, we will continue to have a problem with immigration," said U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat whose district borders Postville.
Such raids are designed to get headlines and make it appear that the federal government is cracking down on illegal immigration, said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration reform group America's Voice. But he says even those who think enforcement is the answer can't seriously believe the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. can be arrested and deported.
"Even if you wanted to pursue an imbalanced enforcement-first strategy, the only thoughtful way to do it would be to go after employers, make examples of them and try to scare other employers into compliance," he said. "They're not doing that."
The owner of the Postville plant, Aaron Rubashkin, has said that the company is conducting its own investigation "into the circumstances which led to the recent work site enforcement action, and is fully cooperating with the government." He said the company could not respond to specific allegations due to pending legal issues.
Court documents filed by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent before the raid at the Postville plant indicate that authorities believed company supervisors were violating a number of federal laws including harboring illegal immigrants. An application and affidavit for search warrant alleged that:
-Based on 2007 fourth-quarter payroll reports, about 78 percent of Agriprocessors' 968 workers were using false or fraudulent Social Security numbers in connection with their employment.
-Agriprocessors was notified by the Social Security Administration in five separate letters of 500 Social Security number discrepancies for each tax year from 2000 to 2005.
-A Department of Transportation investigation found that an Agriprocessors supervisor was forcing workers to buy cars from him and allegedly registered the cars under falsified identities. An investigator found at least 200 cars were bought in this manner.
-The Iowa Department of Labor uncovered workplace safety problems including 39 citations since last October. Fines of around $182,000 were reduced Tuesday to $42,750 after the company agreed to correct some of the violations, which included improper storage and handling of hazardous chemicals and inadequate training in the use of respirators and handling of blood-borne pathogens.
-Allegations of child labor law violations are under investigation by the state. The investigation was initially halted by the ICE raid but has resumed, said Iowa Workforce Development spokeswoman Kerry Koonce. If confirmed, the violations could be prosecuted as misdemeanors under state law.
-Occupational Safety and Health Administration logs show records of incidents that led to five amputations, dozens of reports of broken bones, eye injuries and hearing loss at the plant between 2001 and 2006.
Immigration officials said the 389 arrests at the plant meant it was the largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history. Of those arrested, 297 pleaded guilty and were sentenced. The guilty pleas included use of false identification documents to obtain employment, false use of a Social Security number or cards and unlawful re-entry into the United States.
About 60 of the workers taken into custody were released for humanitarian reasons and do not face criminal charges, while 20 others were detained on immigration violations only and face deportation proceedings, said Bob Teig, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in the Iowa's northern district. Five other defendants did not enter pleas and have cases pending in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids.
The large number of people arrested, coupled with the allegations against Agriprocessors, has led some to conclude that the company is at least as culpable as the workers.
"I'll be interested to see if federal authorities will be bringing any charges against the employer," Braley said in a telephone interview.
Braley has questioned the cost of the Postville raid as well as an operation at Swift & Co. plants in Marshalltown and five other Midwest cities in 2006. Although federal agents arrested about 1,300 workers in raids at the Swift plants, Braley noted that no top company officials were charged.
ICE officials told Braley they didn't have a cost estimate for the Swift raids.
Although it primarily has been Democrats who have questioned why few company officials are charged in immigration raids, the Republican congressman who represents Postville also expressed disappointment about how that operation was handled.
James Carstensen, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Latham, said he views the raid as a blow to families seeking a better life and for the community, which is suffering economically.
"It's a tragedy of an immigration system that is absolutely broken and the tragedy of an enforcement system that is probably not working as effectively as promised by the Bush administration," Carstensen said.
Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-New York, raised concerns about the federal action during a May 20 hearing of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
"Is it not reasonable to assume that if over a third of the work force employed at this plant violated labor law in one form or another that management has to have some complicity in those violations?" he asked James Spero, a deputy assistant director for ICE.
Spero answered that he couldn't comment on a potential ongoing investigation but said immigration enforcement at workplaces does include investigations into violations by management and owners.
"The goal for our work site operations is to target and develop cases against the egregious employers who are committing violations," he said.
Spero said investigations of the employers often take more time, and he noted that agents in Postville had search warrants and seized numerous documents from the company.
Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement that it targets employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants but "must build work site investigations in stages."
"Developing sufficient evidence against employers requires complex, white-collar crime investigations that can take years to bear fruit," she said.
The agency said it filed criminal charges against more than 90 individuals in company supervisory positions last year. That is out of a total of 863 people who were charged with crimes during the year and 4,000 administrative arrests.
Agriprocessors, established in 1987 when Brooklyn, N.Y., butcher Aaron Rubashkin bought a shuttered meatpacking plant, is now the nation's largest kosher meatpacking facility. The owner's son, Sholom Rubashkin, has been running the Postville operation.
However, the company said in its statement that it was seeking a new chief executive for the Postville operation.
"The best course of action for the company, its employees, the local community and our customers is to bring new leadership to Agriprocessors," Rubashkin said in the statement.
The plant was closed on the day of the raid but resumed operation the next day at a reduced level.
Company officials said they were hiring replacement employees and were working with immigration officials to "help us bolster our compliance efforts to employ only properly documented employees."