May 21, 2008
Kosher meat plant raid wreaks widespread havoc
In a makeshift courthouse at a cattle exhibition center in Waterloo, Iowa, Angela Noemi Lastor-Gomez appeared before a federal magistrate judge on charges that she had used false documents to gain employment at the nearby Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse.
The smell of stale cigarette smoke hung in the air as Lastor-Gomez, shackled at the hands and waist, the laces removed from her white sneakers, entered a guilty plea Monday before Judge Jon Stuart Scoles.
It was over in minutes.
With federal agents leading her, Lastor-Gomez waddled from Scoles' courtroom -- housed in a ballroom with a pink neon sign out front, across the grounds of the National Cattle Congress -- to another makeshift court for sentencing.
Linda Reade, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, told Lastor-Gomez through an interpreter that the charges against her carry a potential penalty of up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. But under an agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Lastor-Gomez would be given five years probation and sent back to her native Guatemala.
Lastor-Gomez's federally appointed attorney, Jane Kelly, told Reade that her client wanted to return home, having only come to the United States to work and support her family. The judge then asked Lastor-Gomez if she wanted to address the court.
"I, Angela Lastor-Gomez, want to thank you, thank you for not treating me badly," she began in Spanish, her voice cracking and the tears beginning to flow.
Lastor-Gomez then asked to be returned to Guatemala. Her family is there waiting for her, she said. Finally, she asked for God's blessings.
Reade then sentenced her to five years probation and remanded her to the custody of U.S. marshals.
"God bless you," Lastor-Gomez said as she was led from the room.
Lastor-Gomez was among the first eight workers to be sentenced in connection with last week's federal immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, about 75 miles northeast of Waterloo. The other seven, all men, received identical sentences.
Authorities describe the raid, which netted 389 illegal workers, as the largest federal workplace immigration raid in U.S. history. It was so large that the government had to rent the exhibition center, which initially served as a holding pen and now as a federal courthouse.
Throughout Monday, nearly 70 more detainees pleaded guilty to fraud charges in exchange for five-month jail sentences, followed by deportation, the Des Moines Register reported.
Some detained last week were released almost immediately on humanitarian grounds to care for children. Under an agreement with prosecutors, a larger number were released a few days later because no criminal charges were pending.
The remainder, 306 immigrant laborers -- the bulk from Mexico and Guatemala -- are still in federal custody facing charges related to the misuse of Social Security numbers and faking their identities in employment documents.
A court spokesman said he expected the hearings to be complete by Thursday night.
The raid has wrought havoc for Agriprocessors, which produces more than half the country's kosher beef and 40 percent of its kosher chicken, mostly under the labels Aaron's Best and Rubashkin's. The company has scrambled to replace its workforce, importing laborers from across the country or busing them in daily from around the state.
"I see new faces all the time," said a red-bearded Chasid, who said he was a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, at the plant.
One of those new faces is Dan Keller, 41, an unemployed single father who received a call last week from an employment agency saying Agriprocessors was hiring. A former machine operator at Tyson Foods in Waterloo, Keller now operates a Cry-o-vac for Agriprocessors, sucking the air out of packages of deli foods and other ready-to-eat products.
Each morning at about 5 a.m., Keller boards a coach for the hour-and-a-half ride to Postville. He spends eight hours vacuum-sealing bags of meat -- "or product, as you're supposed to call it" -- before boarding the bus back to Waterloo.
Keller is paid $8 an hour for his troubles -- less than the $12.20 he was paid as a unionized worker at Tyson, but more than the $5 an hour Agriprocessors is alleged to have paid some of its illegal workers.
According to Keller, after taxes and child support payments are deducted, he walks away with just $39 for an 11-hour day. But he's not complaining. The bus is comfortable and outfitted with televisions, and Agriprocessors even provided lunch the first day.
"So far it's been awesome," Keller said. "I think they're treating us really, really well. They're just glad to have us at this point."
Workers like Keller have allowed Agriprocessors to continue to function, though several people with connections to the plant say it is operating at a fraction of its usual capacity. Keller said his department normally employs 104 people. The day he arrived, there were four. Now, with the additional labor, the number is up to 34.
"They're not up to speed yet at all," Keller said. "They're just trying to survive."
Founded by Aaron Rubashkin, a butcher from Brooklyn and a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Agriprocessors has attracted hundreds of Orthodox Jews to this rural pocket of northeast Iowa in the past two decades.
The company first gained national attention in 2000 with the publication of the book, "Postville," which described the tensions between the company and the local community. Since then, Agriprocessors has come under fire over its slaughter methods and labor practices, as well as health and safety violations.
As much trouble as the raid has generated for Agriprocessors, it pales in comparison to what the residents of Postville are experiencing.
The raid has decimated the local Spanish-speaking population, which went underground in the days afterward. Children were absent from school, friends mysteriously disappeared and many sought refuge in one of Postville's three churches.
The owner of Sabor Latino, a Spanish grocery and restaurant in downtown Postville, said his business fell by half since the raid. On Sunday, a sign advertised an all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet -- $3.95 for kids, $6.95 for adults. But only one diner was in the restaurant in late afternoon.
"They're hiding," the owner said of his missing patrons.
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