Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi’

Postville: The Difference a Year Makes

May 13, 2009

Yesterday, immigrant rights advocates marched down the tiny streets of Postville, IA. They marched to remind the nation that workplace raids cause ongoing devastation, that immigrants deserve basic human rights, and that Obama must live up to his promise to tackle immigration reform in the next year. [Martin, Liz. “Postville story, a year later, told in photos”]

Local businessman Gabay Menahem joined the march and commented on the economic difference a year makes.  “A year ago it was impossible to buy a house in Postville. Now there are 228 houses for sale out of 700 total.”  More than 30% of the Jewish community left after the raid, and much of the Latino community was either deported after entering guilty pleas or fled in fear.  [Love, Orlan] Some still remain, wearing transponders on their ankles more than a year later.  Children still remain [local school attendance has only dropped about 3%], but they are in increasing need of mental health services, and many of them are missing at least one parent.

Father Ouderkirk and St. Bridget’s Church continue to minister to the Latino community of Postville.  They currently care for 30 affected families, aiding them with housing and food and counseling as they seek to be reunited with their family members or as they wait for their day in court.

Most of the 389 workers arrested pled guilty last May.  They were housed in a cattle-barn, expedited through a trailer-home courthouse ten at a time, and threatened with years in prison unless they pled guilty on the spot.  Many of them were from Guatemala, and few of them spoke English.  The majority of them had no idea what a Social Security number was, or why the leading prosecutor Stephanie Rose thought that they had used fake ones.  Many of them had received fake numbers from their employer, Agriprocessor’s Inc., the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the nation.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Flores-Figueroa, ruling that to be convicted of aggravated identity theft, the person must know they are using another person’s identification.  While this ruling does little for the 389 workers, most of whom pled guilty and have since been deported, but it is resulting in dropped charges against some of Agriprocessor’s administration.  Last Tuesday, federal prosecutors dropped aggravated identity theft charges [a mandatory 2 years imprisonment] against human resources manager Laura Althouse, who was allowed to rescind a guilty plea she entered last year. [Preston, Julia. “Dismissal of Guilty Pleas is Sought for Immigrants”]

As the Supreme Court’s decision affects the sentencing of this dubious employer’s administrative staff, many are calling upon Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to order a case-by-case investigation into the almost 300 guilty pleas entered last May in Postville. “The federal prosecutors used the law as a hammer to coerce the workers,” said David Leopold, vice president of American Immigration Lawyers Association.  Others went farther, including Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California), chairwoman of the House immigration subcommittee.  She is calling on the Justice Department to start over, since these cases didn’t comport with the law. [Preston, Julia. “Dismissal of Guilty Pleas is Sought for Immigrants”]

Today marks the day after Postville’s raid last year.  Postville no longer represents the largest ICE raid [Laurel, MS, now holds that dubious title].  This tiny town in northern Iowa has largely been forgotten by politicians and lawmakers, if not the general public.  As life goes on and our courts begin to follow the new Flores-Figueroa ruling, it is vital that we make sure it is evenly applied.  There is an unpleasant aroma of injustice when the immigrants who worked in subhuman conditions were imprisoned five months and deported, while the employers were never made to stand accountable for their numerous employment violations [child labor laws, safety protocols, and pay] and look to walk on some of the harsher sanctions of identity theft and employing undocumented workers.

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Saint Patrick’s Day in Postville

March 25, 2009

Saint Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints.  Born to Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict who had been baptized by Saint Patrick, Bridget went on to found an important monastery in Kildare or Cill-dara, the “church of the oak.”  Her symbol is the Saint Brigid’s cross, representative of a time when she wove some reeds together to form a cross in the house of a dying peasant in order to teach him the Gospel story.

Driving into Postville, Iowa, on Saint Patrick’s Day, I was immediately struck by the ghost-town feel of the western half of this town that used to boast a population of 2,000.  Dozens of chicken-coop semi-trucks were parked outside the abandoned Agriprocessor’s slaughterhouse.  Hundreds of coops sat outside, vacant, waiting.  A piece of heavy machinery was driving through the property, disposing with some of the tons of junk littered around the lot.  With the whine of its engine, it seems to be disposing with the evidence of what happened here last May.

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

On this dusty day, one can hardly imagine the cacophony of sounds here before the ICE raid on May 12, 2008.  Chickens squawking, machines whirring, blades thudding, trucks chugging, people shouting to be heard over the din of machinery.  Spanish mixed with Yiddish mixed with Arabic numerals preceded by $ signs.

In this abandoned slaughterhouse site, though, it is all too easy to imagine the eerie silence when the machines stopped, when 900 ICE agents increased the town’s population by 40%, when 389 immigrants were detained and interned in a cattle barn, when the chickens lived to squawk some more and this peaceful Iowa town screeched to a halt.  Only five immigrant workers had prior criminal records, but all were sentenced with working under false documents.  (Bobo, Kim. Religious Leaders Protest Postville Raid)  The public defenders, the translators, the immigration judge – everyone had been told to keep this date open on their calendars, ensuring a speedy process where nearly all the immigrants from Central America pled guilty to charges they didn’t understand in hopes of reduced sentences.  Professional interpreter Camayd-Freixas was so appalled that he published his eyewitness account with the New York Times.

Just down the street, I sit with Father Ouderkirk for a half-hour.  He is the father of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church here in Postville, a safe haven for many of the terrorized families still remaining after that fateful day in May.  “You should have been here earlier,” this once-retired priest tells me.  “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this turns into the best restaurant in town.'”  Taking his job seriously as pastor to this reeling community, Ouderkirk serves Latino food to needy families on these days, in addition to working to provide housing funds for the scores of families who lost dads, moms, and children in this raid.  “You wouldn’t believe how much we spend each month, trying to keep a roof over their heads.”

Some of the women he serves at St. Bridget’s have been wearing an ankle bracelet for 10 months.  Some of the children haven’t seen or heard from their fathers for almost a year.  Many of the mothers are torn between returning to Central America to reunite with their husbands or staying here so their citizen children can receive a good education.  These families are facing excruciatingly difficult choices, choices one should never have to make.  Father Ouderkirk wipes with his handkerchief and tells me what we really need is comprehensive immigration reform.

As I leave Postville on Tuesday, the day after the mayor announced his resignation, the boarded-up windows and streams of For-Sale signs are a constant reminder that this town was dealt a devastating blow last May.  With a new administration and new DHS Secretary Napolitano, many are hopeful that the days of Postville and Oxford, Mississippi raids are over.  It is not enough, though, to merely hope that this administration will make the hard choices it must to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform wins out over high-profile, low-impact raids such as this.  We must make it very clear that criminalizing immigrant families is useless and inhumane, while opportunistic employers who lure workers under false pretenses (and, as here, actually provide the false identification documents to their unknowing workers) is the appropriate focus of workplace reform.  We must remind Obama that, if he is really attempting to out-do the New Deal, he should learn from FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins who shut down the Department of Labor division that was then carrying out workplace raids (Bobo, Kim). We must encourage Napolitano to ensure that such Sinclair-like Jungle conditions never occur again, where immigrants are both victimized and criminalized.  We must urge our judicial department to reexamine current immigration policies which allow such a rushed, clandestine mockery of Due Process.

Father Ouderkirk will be traveling to my home in Rochester on April 2, to give a presentation at Pax Christi Catholic Church.  I encourage anyone and everyone to come and hear this man of faith who is earnestly working for immigration reform.  For all those afar, it is vital that we do not forget such tragedies as Postville.  We must stare at such instances with unblinking eyes and learn from them.  Please urge our administration to do the same.

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

Tashlikh

October 1, 2008

A few feet from the newly rebuilt 35-W bridge, the air smells like autumn. Below where we stand on the all-but-abandoned people bridge, the Mississippi moves wordlessly resolute toward the sea. It is the day after Rosh Hashanah, and though I have never celebrated this Jewish New Year before, I have also never had a friend willing to let me tag along.

We are perched between the West & East Banks of the University of Minnesota to practice tashlikh. This tradition dates back to Abraham and Isaac, when a goat was sacrificed in place of Abraham’s only legitimate son. Tashlikh also is a variance on the Levitical custom of the entire community reciting their sins of the past year over a “scape goat” which was chased away into the desert bearing the guilt. In lieu of a goat, my friend and I have pieces of the bread which was broken for his Rosh Hashanah meal the evening before.

As Eddy reads a Hebrew poem and prayer, I concentrate on the regrettable things I have done in the past year. If this bread is to take away my sins, it should probably carry my pride and my lack of communication to those closest to me. I must be more generous in the coming year. I regret I haven’t used my talents to help more people. I regret that the War continues and I do so little, that nativism still poisons the lives of so many and I am quiet.

The bread spirals down to meet the muddy water. Eddy tells me that until Yom Kippur I am to engage in introspection and prayer, that I might not repeat those sins now bobbing below. A splash, a ripple, and the bread is gone.

I marvel that I have read the Old Testament in Christian circles many times over, and yet have never been so touched by this simple command to get rid of the old and purpose to do better. Maybe it was because it was in another language, maybe it was the power of a friend. Perhaps it was the changing leaves or the cold sunlight. Maybe it was that I felt like Abraham, a sojourner in a new land, seeing something for the first time.

A Labor Day Salute to All Resident Workers

September 1, 2008

This September 1st, it is only fitting to laud the accomplishments of the unnoticed and disenfranchised of America’s workforce – the Immigrant.  In a nation that is still bent on building a wall and has popular public figures campaigning for mass deportation, immigrants still managed to excel in 33 of the spots on the American Olympic team. In a nation where immigrants legal and extralegal quake at the thought of ICE raids like that which detained more than 350 workers this past week in Laurel, Mississippi (New York Times), immigrants of undocumented parents (desparagingly referred to as “anchor babies” by American media) like Henry Cejudo worked tirelessly to upset the heavily favored Japanese free wrestler Tomohiro Matsunaga in the gold-medal match in Beijing (Navarrette, Ruben).  With hard workers like these thankless millions, Labor Day means a day without work for most of us.

This past week, the national spotlight was turned to the perilous job of the window-washers in New York City.  On Tuesday, August 28, two window-washers were narrowly rescued while a third plunged to his death in Manhattan.  49-year-old Robert Domaszowec was a Ukrainian immigrant who had received his dangerous calling from his father (New York Times).  Much of the City’s window-washers are first or second-generation immigrants who quietly risk their lives day in and day out to improve the view of millions.

Like so many immigrants, their lives are largely invisible to mainstream American culture.  Unless we read about a rare crime committed by an extralegal immigrant or watch an incendiary nativistic talk show on television, these workers who earn their Labor Day often work in underpaid jobs with scant hope for advancement.  When they are noticed, it is often with disdain, xenophobia, or worse.  This past week Tennessee changed its state law to allow pregnant inmates to be unchained and uncuffed during childbirth.  This came only after a Mexican immigrant, detained in Davidson County on the charge of “careless driving,” was left handcuffed to the bed for all but a few minutes of her labor.  The Sheriff went on record as saying this recently overturned policy was, “a little more than may have been necessary in every case” (New York Times.

On this Labor Day, it is vital we appreciate our nation’s success over the years and the people to whom we owe a deep thanks.  At the risk of sounding repetitive and Kennedy-esque, our nation truly is a land of immigrants, new and long-established, coming and going.  On Labor Day it is important to remember those who are not even allowed to join labor unions but still work 10-hour days in our factories and fields, houses and skyscrapers.  This Labor Day let us say a prayer for our nation, that it may not forget those things which make it strong (such as immigrants) and that it may cease those things which weaken it daily (such as the wars of the past 40 years).  If our nation would rise to its self-proclaimed status as world power, if we would acknowledge both the push and pull of immigrants coming to this country, if we would work to incorporate and integrate and empower every resident within our borders, then Labor Day could truly be a holiday celebrated by everyone in the United States instead of just those with papers.

The Dawn after the Darkest

April 7, 2008

Martin Luther King spoke often about the night being darkest just before the dawn. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King writes about a lawsuit in the Birmingham Bus Boycott as being one such night, “darker than a thousand midnights. It was a night in which the light of hope was about to fade away and the lamp of faith about to flicker. We went home with nothing before us but a cloud of uncertainty” (A Testament of Hope, 455).

April 1 saw Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff waiving 39 laws to rush the construction of a border fence along our nation’s southern border. April 7, then, marks a return to law and a callback to conscience. Chairman of the Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) convened with 14 Members of Congress to submit an intent to file an Amicus Curiae brief regarding the Defenders of Wildlife case (which would bring the environmental law waivers to Supreme Court). These Congressman urge the Supreme Court to grant certiorari in this case, because they hold that the REAL ID Act’s waiver of laws is unconstitutional.

Grassroots groups like No Texas Border Wall, Border Ambassadors, and the Texas Border Coalition rejoiced today to hear Congressman echo our shock and disbelief at this massive waiver. Thompson joined these men and women in opposition to the REAL ID Act:

Chairman Thompson stated before these legislators that the Secretary of Homeland Security’s use of the waiver was “a direct challenge to Congress’s Constitutional role. The American people entrust Congress to ensure that the laws of this land are faithfully executed not excused by the Executive Branch” (Amicus Curiae). Grassroots organizers should feel proud at their efforts to raise this particular waiver to the national eye, while its use in Arizona went unnoticed and largely unopposed.

Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) might well have walked with the 300 marchers this past March 8-16 from Roma to Brownsville. He understands with us that this wall is an environmental blight, a piecemeal political gesture, and an ineffective strategy. He stated that it is “our responsibility to be stewards of the earth cannot be thrown aside for the sake of an ill-conceived border fence. The Administration exempts itself from a duty to protect the environment, sacred burial sites, and centuries-old farms, but conveniently spares wealthy landowners from the bulldozers” (Amicus Curiae). We applaud the truth of his statement and welcome him or anyone on this Committee to come down to see this Valley, visit the people of Granjeno and Los Ebanos, swim in the beautiful river, walk the trails of endangered ocelots, and witness the wonderful coexistence of both sides of the broder.

Intimating that Congress has been worried about such disregard for law before this, Rep. John Dingell said, “Congress’ efforts to seek justification for this waiver from DHS have been stonewalled, which leads me to believe none exists” (Amicus Curiae). Much like J. Edgar Hoover’s refusal to release proof for his Communist accusations of civil rights leaders like Stanley Levison and Martin Luther King, Homeland Security’s Secretary has voiced the fact that it is unnecessary to explain this action or to study the wall’s effects on the environment and local communities. It does the Valley’s heart good to know that these Congressman and many others understand the gravity of this situation.

And so it is with much rejoicing in my heart that I write this. Though the Secure Fence Act of 2006 will still be a long fight and the REAL ID Act has not yet been overturned, we are moving in the right direction. Though the arc of the moral universe is long, it does bend toward justice. It is bending faster and more distinctly as of today. The conscience of this country and the minds of this nation’s residents are bending toward a place of reconciliation and true progress. We are beginning to communicate – may this nonpartisan committee be just a beginning.

Please write these brave men and women to congratulate them on their stance for Truth. Write your other state legislators to urge them to oppose both the REAL ID Act and the Secure Fence Act.