It feels like yesterday that Rabbi Ari Hart and I were in Postville, Iowa speaking with workers to learn about their suffering and to offer our solidarity. The tears and pain of the immigrant women and children we encountered will always be with me. But it has been five years since the kosher scandal and the immigration raid shook the Jewish community and the world. What has changed since then?
On May 12, 2008, the largest immigration raid in U.S. history took place, with 389 workers from the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse and meat packaging plant in Postville, Iowa being arrested. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials raided the plant (the main producer of kosher meat in the United States), handcuffed hundreds of immigrants, and bused them to the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa. Most of the detainees were charged with identity theft and were sent to prisons all over the country where they spent five months before being deported out of the country. Postville was severely damaged and hundreds of lives were torn apart. Immigration raids were incredibly destructive to all.
The town of Postville was destroyed, with 20% of its population detained and hundreds of families torn apart. Half the population left within a few months, stores and restaurants formerly owned by Mexican immigrants closed, and business in many other places also dropped by 50%. Ironically, among the few allowed to stay and work were women who had filed sexual harassment charges at the plant, who stayed to be witnesses and were then given U-visas, as they were victims of crime within the United States.
The aftermath exposed several myths about undocumented residents, such as that they are criminals or are taking jobs away from Americans. The military-style raid was an extreme overreaction to the situation: The workers offered no resistance, and American citizens did not flock to fill the open jobs. Instead, the owners had to import workers from locales as diverse and remote as Palau (since its workers can work here legally) and Somalia (undocumented alien refugees). Unfortunately, even Hispanics who have U.S. citizenship find it difficult to work in this field, as plant owners are afraid of further raids. Low wages, long hours, and a high accident rate make the jobs unpalatable to most Americans. The pay may be slightly higher than before, but it is still very low and, because the plant is non-unionized, workers are not able to band together to negotiate protections for themselves.
What is true is that immigrants contribute a great deal more to our nation than they receive. A 2006 analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that a Senate bill promoting immigration reform (similar to current proposals) could raise gross domestic product (GDP) from between 0.8 percent to 1.3 percent from 2012-2016, for an estimated $134 billion a year. In this tight economy, who would not want to implement a policy that could appreciably improve the GDP?
On the other hand, we need not resort to theory to show the beneficial effect of immigration on the economy. A 2012 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, Open for Business: How Immigrants Are Driving Business Creation in the United States, noted that immigrants now start new businesses at more than double the rate of native-born Americans. Other highlights of the report include:
• 10 percent of American workers are now employed in companies owned by immigrants
• During the past decade, immigrant business income has grown at more than four times the rate of native-owned business income
• Immigrants now start more than a quarter of all businesses in seven of the eight sectors of the U.S. economy that are expected to grow the most over the next decade
Immigrants and their children are also very important in large American corporations, and are an integral part of the Fortune 500:
• Immigrants founded 90 of these companies, and their children founded 114, for a total of 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies
• If these companies comprised a country, their combined revenues would qualify as the fourth largest in GDP
• Seven of the 10 most valuable brands (including Apple and Google) were founded by immigrants or their children
Today, many of our immigrant workers come from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This was not always the case. More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle described an America in nearly all the meatpacking industry workers were European immigrants. In this searing indictment of the ill-treatment of immigrant slaughterhouse workers in Chicago, a Lithuanian family headed by Jurgis Rudkus faces exploitative employers, hazardous work environments for adults and children, miserable housing conditions, and hostility from the authorities. Unfortunately, the American public took interest mostly in the unsanitary conditions of the meat packing factories; ironically, the novel helped spur the first generation of laws ensuring more healthful food and drug processing, but did not immediately improve the lives of immigrant workers. Only during the New Deal did factory workers throughout America unionize and improve their condition, thus achieving the American Dream for many immigrants and their children, who were able to enter and strengthen the growing middle class.
Today, long hours, low pay, high injury rates, and exploitation of child labor are still problems facing undocumented aliens in the meat processing and other industries. We can give in to hatred and ignorance by regarding them as enemies and criminals, or we can understand how valuable immigrants have always been to our society and welcome them. At this time of Pesach, as we remember the days of our slavery in the land of Egypt, we should especially remember the command: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).
Five years ago, we (Uri L’Tzedek) launched a national boycott against Agriprocessors after all of the abuses emerged since it is against Jewish law to buy products that were produced against the mandates of Jewish law. Around 2,000 rabbis and Jewish leaders signed on to the boycott within the first two weeks. After company representatives met with us and agreed to our demands for ethical and legal transparency, we called off the boycott. Since then, the ethical kashrut has blossomed with tens of thousands of followers but we have a long way to go still. The damage done to the reputation of the kosher industry has been immense and we are yet to take full responsibility for the conduct within the industry. The Flaums case also caused a lot of damage but Uri L’Tzedek ultimately partnered to get this scandal resolved. The Tav HaYosher has been one serious response to ethical abuses (worker injustices) in kashrut but segments of the Orthodox community still reject the problem and deny our collective responsibility. Much more needs to be done. We must continue to call for immigration reform and stand in solidarity with all workers and immigrants that encounter abuse.
For those who can join a large coalition in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at noon on Friday, May 10, there will be a group gathering to commemorate the Fifth Anniversary of the Postville, Iowa Immigration Raid. The group will be calling upon us to remember the stories of the 389 individuals who were arrested on May 12, 2008, to advocate for immigration reform, and to seek reconciliation with those who perpetuated injustices. For more information, please contact Rockne Cole at email@example.com or Sister Mary McCauley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."