The vast majority were herded onto buses, detained in makeshift jails, and subjected to fast-track criminal convictions – 94 a day – for entering the country illegally. Many had been living with their families in Postville for years.
After being forced into plea deals to avoid lengthy jail terms for â€œidentity theftâ€ (a charge later invalidated by a Supreme Court ruling), the arrestees were jailed for five months and afterward deported.
Almost none had previous criminal records. Never before – or since – were illegal immigrants in this country arrested and fast-tracked to jail en masse simply for being undocumented.
â€˜WALK FOR JUSTICEâ€™ BEGINS NEAR JUDGE READEâ€™S COURTHOUSE
Symbolic of the lingering distrust people harbor about the federal institutions involved in the raid, organizers of a remembrance event in Iowa last week began the program with â€œA Walk for Justice,â€ across from the District Court in Cedar Rapids.
In an article in the Iowa Gazette, organizers were quoted as saying that they chose this location â€œbecause of the Courtâ€™s role in the raid.â€ The reference to Judge Linda Reade, who presides over that court, is unmistakable.
After becoming a virtual arm of the prosecution, as FOIA documents describe her pre-raid involvement, Reade then presided over the criminal proceedings, convictions and sentencing of hundreds of arrestees, â€œrepeatedly violating the Code of Judicial Conduct,â€ in the words of an attorney close to the case.
The level of her pre-raid involvement was deemed remarkable even at the time, long before FOIA materials revealed her secret meetings with prosecutors, and her â€œstakeholderâ€ status in the eyes of ICE officials planning the enforcement action.
Readeâ€™s extraordinary collusion with the prosecutors prompted a scathing critique by the former president of a prominent immigration advocacy group, AILA [American Immigration Lawyers Association].
â€˜IOWA COURT WAS DRIVING THE TRAINâ€™
â€œThe Iowa federal district court [Judge Linda Reade] was driving the train, fatally compromising its own integrity as an independent branch of government,â€ wrote then AILA President Charles Kuck in 2008.
â€œThe tracks laid down to carry this new â€˜enforcement trainâ€™ were designed to force rapid guilty pleas under the threat of serious jail time, avoid the inconvenience of trials, limit access to immigration counsel, eliminate the prospect of all future relief, and impose criminal sentences simultaneously,â€ the AILA attorney said.
The brutal treatment of these undocumented workers and the fast-track justice that railroaded them into waiving their rights, sparked an uproar at the time. Civil rights groups, immigration advocates and defense lawyers demanded an investigation.
Their outcry galvanized a 2008 congressional inquiry into allegations of due process violations. The investigation was stymied, however, by conflicting reports. A DOJ spokeswoman testified that local officials in Iowa ran the operation and were responsible for strategic decisions, while Iowa prosecutors insisted the orders came from Washington.
In the end, the official spin on the story won the day. Federal authorities in Washington testifying at the hearing portrayed the operation as compassionate and humane. They denied all allegations of verbal and physical abuse, as well as all charges of civil rights violations.
With hundreds of immigrants jailed or deported and unavailable for interviews, the protests and clamor gradually faded. The congressional inquiry wound down without resolving the most critical questions.
Last week one of these burning questions resurfaced as the Senate began hearings on amendments to a sweeping immigration reform package, in part inspired by the harrowing events in Postville 5 years ago.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, told a USA Today correspondent that he pressed federal immigration officials for explanations about the origins of the Postville raid.
â€œWhy Postville? What led to a raid of this magnitude in rural Iowa?â€ Braley said he asked them.
Although Postville was not the only large federal raid in the previous decade, it stands out as the most notorious for its human rights violations.
Federal agents no longer storm into workplaces in military gear, with guns drawn. They no longer haul out hundreds of workers in splashy and expensive shows of force more suited to a counter-terrorism operation.
Although Braley received no meaningful response from the officials he questioned, answers may soon emerge, thanks to a FOIA lawsuit awaiting a critical ruling from a Washington, D.C. judge.
GOVERNMENT: IMPORTANT TO PROTECT JUDGE READEâ€™S â€˜PRIVACYâ€™
Four years after Sholom Rubashkin began serving a 27-year sentence, his case refuses to die. A new legal front has been opened with the assembling of a new and powerful legal team with a record for success with post-conviction remedies. Countless friends and supporters who believe a good man was unconscionably railroaded by the government have joined ranks to raise funds for the endeavor.
This legal effort is being buttressed by a FOIA lawsuit that seeks to force the government to turn over official documents from six federal agencies that planned and executed the raid. The agencies are legally required to turn over the documents but have stalled the process with deliberate delays for more than a year.
Jones Day attorney Larry Rosenberg told Yated that the reasons cited by the government for withholding the material are â€œfrivolous.â€
â€œTheir briefs say they are protecting Judge Readeâ€™s privacy,â€ he said. â€œWe find that argument absurd. A public official acting in his or her official capacity is not entitled to privacy. Thatâ€™s precisely what the Freedom of Information Act is all about.â€
â€œThis nonsense about protecting Judge Readeâ€™s privacy makes us even more determined to get those documents, and to get them without redactions (blacked out information),â€ Rosenberg said.
A Washington, D.C. judge is actively considering a motion for summary judgment or status hearings on the case, the attorney said, and her ruling could come any day.
If the Court orders the release of information, some burning questions might finally be answered, such as why and by whom Agriprocessors was targeted, when it is widely known that the livestock industry across the nation uses illegal immigrants extensively.
Echoing Rep. Braleyâ€™s question, with 19 million illegals and a cloudy policy at best, why was Agriprocessors singled out? Was this a political favor one politician or organization owed another? What role did the labor unions play?
We may discover why the DOJ ignored the demands of 85 congressmen, and an array of former federal prosecutors and prominent legal scholars, that Holder open an investigation into evidence of glaring prosecutorial abuse in the Rubashkin case.
An Iowa attorney familiar with the complexities of the case put it this way: â€œIf Americans had any idea of the ruthlessness behind this storyâ€¦ of the scheming by people in power and the forces of biasâ€¦. how they railroaded people without a shred of regard for their human rights, there would be rioting in the streets.â€
Using hindsight, itâ€™s illuminating to turn back the pages to the May 2008 to review the government campaign of misinformation that paved the way for the destruction of Agriprocessors, the prosecution of Sholom Rubashkin, and the massive collateral damage that decimated Postville. Thanks to the success of this sordid propaganda, the true facts are still not well known.
Prosecutors, aided by the media, had done their best to sensationalize the alleged â€œcrimesâ€ that led to the raid. News headlines, quoting the federal indictment, broadcast to the world lurid allegations about rampant worker abuse at Agriprocessors.
They painted the slaughterhouse as a cesspool of crime, where a meth lab operated and illegal weapons were stored–allegations which vanished from the radar screen after the 2008 raid took place, never to be heard again.
The orchestrated uproar about immigration violations, child labor, worker abuse, exploitation and dangerous working conditions at Agriprocessors continued for months, demonizing the name â€œRubashkinâ€ and making it all but impossible to find a fair-minded, neutral jury.
These libels were shattered only two years after the raid, at Sholom Rubashkinâ€™s state labor trial, where he was forced to defend himself from over 9,000 counts of labor violations. At the time, he was incarcerated in Iowa, awaiting sentencing for financial offenses.
The state charged him with knowingly hiring minors at Agriprocessors and subjecting them to dangerous working conditions. In addition to these charges, the presiding judge, Nathan Callahan, allowed prosecutors to air allegations about harsh working conditions, shortchanging workersâ€™ salaries, and forced overtime. Any evidence pointing to human rights violations at Agriprocessors was allowed to be introduced.
In perhaps the most defining moments in the Rubashkin saga, the government produced no testimony or other evidence of physical molestation, forced labor, shorting of pay, extortion, severe injury or abuse.
Testimony from a number of witnesses established that safety training and safety equipment at the plant were a foremost priority. Plant manager Chaim Abrams testified that $100,000 a year was invested in safety equipment, protective safeguards and training.
Regardless of budget cuts at various times throughout the plant, he said, no cutbacks were ever made in the area of safety. Allegations had been raised that workers were forced to pay for their protective equipment, but no witnesses brought this complaint in court. It turned out to be one of many unsubstantiated libels spread by opponents.
Other myths were punctured on the witness stand. Claims that no medical insurance was available to the workers were shredded. The truth was brought home most eloquently by the testimony of a government witness that he chose to remain at AgriProcessors, due to the medical treatment he was afforded by the plantâ€™s insurance plan for an ear-related ailment.
WORKPLACE INJURIES LOWER THAN NATIONAL AVERAGE
Plant manager Chaim Abrams testified to an affirmation from the planâ€™s insurance carrier that AgriProcessorsâ€™ record of workplace injuries fell below than the national average at slaughterhouses. This was borne out by the fact that after a five year period, insurance premiums paid by AgriProcessors for its workers so exceeded the amount of claims filed, the company received a sizeable refund – virtually unheard of in the slaughterhouse industry.
Aaron Goldsmith, a Postville resident and former city councilman, testified that his own research had confirmed Abramsâ€™ testimony. In addition, Goldsmith testified that he had once asked Senator Tom Harkin – no great friend of AgriProcessors – how Postvilleâ€™s meat-packing plant compared with others across the country in terms of safety and cleanliness.
â€œAaron, Iâ€™ve visited meat-packing plants across the country. AgriProcessors is one of the cleanest and most well-run,â€ Goldsmith recalled Harkin telling him.
The â€œpoisonous chemicalsâ€ the workers were said to have been exposed to turned out to be nothing more than dry ice and chlorine bleach, present in concentrations similar to those used in everyday households.
A third â€œchemical,â€ anhydrous ammonia, posed no danger because it ran in enclosed pipes, and workers were not exposed to it, defense expert Rodney Heston explained.
Despite two years of preparation, and millions of taxpayer money invested in flying in witnesses (former Agriprocessors employees) from Guatemala and Mexico where they had been deported after the raid, prosecutors could not prove a single allegation.
They had approached trial with a mammoth 9311 child labor counts. Those numbers were exposed as wildly inflated, as they asked the judge to dismiss 90 percent of them the morning the trial began.
The remaining charges were so lacking in credibility that the jury, after a month-long trial, threw them all out, handing Sholom Mordechai a sweeping acquittal on all counts.
SENATOR HARKIN â€œREMEMBERSâ€
What is astounding is that the media, as well as people in positions of power and influence, continue to recycle the discredited lies about â€œworker abuseâ€ at Agriprocessors, as if the trial and acquittal never happened. Media reports, too, continue to repackage the libels.
Iowa Senator Harkin, quoted above in the Goldsmith court testimony (â€œAaron, Iâ€™ve visited meat-packing plants across the country. AgriProcessors is one of the cleanest and most well-run,â€) is a prime example of such cynical, opportunistic behavior.
In an interview last week with the Iowa Gazette about the 5th anniversary of the Postville raid, Harkin discussed his memories of the Postville raid.
â€œ[The senator] remembers a situation â€˜that was not a high point in American jurisprudence or the application of justice,â€ the Gazette wrote.
â€œFirst of all, these poor workers were being exploited anyway,â€ Harkin said. â€œThey were working in harsh conditions, and there were indications of child labor violations and unsafe conditions,â€ he said. â€œAnd then to have this [ordeal] happen.â€
[This is the same Tom Harkin who lavished praise on then Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose, a key player in the Postville prosecutions, when she was nominated for U.S. Attorney in 2009. Two years later, when she was nominated to the federal bench, Harkin once again threw all his political weight behind her.]
Meanwhile, for almost everyone in the Postville saga, the world continues to turn and life moves on. The immigrants have long been released to rejoin their families, large numbers of them (including many of those deported) returning to Postville and the reopened meat packing plant.
But for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin languishing in prison, four years into an outrageous 27-year sentence, justice is still denied.