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.”