Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

The Lie At The Heart Of The Postville Documentary

A documentary on the 2008 Postville ICE raid that highlights government abuse of human rights is hijacked by a political agenda that makes use of a cropped picture of Sholom Mordchai Rubashkin to manipulate the audience. What begins as a moving historical narrative about the plight of migrant workers in Postville, Iowa, and their harrowing, unjust treatment at the hands of federal agents, degenerates midway into a crude sideshow of Rubashkin-bashing. The film thus falls prey to the same evils it protests. The documentary, “Abused,” which was filmed in Postville and weaves together the personal stories of victims of the raid, is being screened in various locations in the United States, most recently in Manhattan. There is talk of bringing it to Washington, in hopes of attracting the attention of activists and legislators concerned with immigration reform.

By showing the human face of the raid’s victims, the film captures the devastating impact of the massive law enforcement action that jailed and deported close to 400 undocumented workers. It conveys the tragedy of shattered lives and broken families.


Launching Pad For Anti-Rubashkin Slugfest


The film’s author and producer, Luis Argueta, undercuts the documentary’s authenticity by using it as a launching pad for maligning Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. In so doing, he raises questions about his own agenda, and that of the documentary’s sponsors, most of whom have not been publicly identified.

A great deal of screen time is devoted to casting Sholom Mordechai as a greedy executive who secured the company’s fortune by exploiting and abusing the immigrant employees. The implicit message is that the immigrants suffered at least as much from mistreatment at the workplace as at the hands of the government.

As evidenced in the Manhattan screening, this ploy tends to work well with a great many viewers who, witnessing the hapless lot of the immigrants, are ready by the film’s end to lynch the villain most responsible for their misery.


But who is that individual? Which government official(s) conceived, planned and executed the brutal raid? It’s impossible to know with any certainty. The faceless “big, bad government” as the villain in the story won’t play nearly as well as someone with a name and a face people recognize.


Whipping Up The Crowd


Argueta has the film abruptly change focus, giving viewers a culprit they can point to – Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin – whose face dominates the upper left-hand corner of the screen as his many “crimes” are enumerated.


It is not the benign countenance most people visualize when hearing Sholom Mordechai’s name. This is a picture of someone with narrowed eyes and a grim, hard expression. There is something disturbing about the way this face hovers over the film’s tale of hardship and woe. One is reminded of Jewish caricatures of Nazi propaganda plastered on the walls of buildings in the Hitler era, with the ubiquitous caption, “The Jews are the cause of our misfortune!”


Sholom Mordechai’s picture flashes repeatedly as the audience hears live testimony from former Agriprocessors employees about the terrible working conditions there, and then reads the formidable list of charges for which Sholom Mordechai was indicted, including a whopping 9,311 child-labor violations.


Anger sweeps through the room at the thought of this man enriching himself on the backs of poor immigrants – aman who actually had children operating dangerous power tools and working with toxic chemicals!


Counting On Audience’s Ignorance


Arugeta was probably counting on the fact that outside of Postville, few people are aware that Sholom Mordechai was fully acquitted of the 9,311 child-labor charges the state originally indicted him on.


Argueta himself knows this only too well since he was present at the state trial, taking notes and even filming parts of it, Rubashkin family members recall.


He was also under no illusion about why the state case fell apart and why the jury threw out all the charges. Prosecutors produced no evidence and no credible witnesses to back up those charges.


The immigrants flown in from Mexico and Guatemala to testify for the government had been deported after the raid. They agreed to return to the country that had ejected them and to cooperate with the prosecution in return for a promise by federal agents to help them procure a coveted U-visa. The visa would enable them to work in the United States and to apply for permanent residency.


According to immigration regulations, only victims of crimes committed at the workplace who cooperate with the government in the investigation of those crimes are eligible for U-visas. Once it is granted, the victim’s entire family is included in its provisions.


The stage was thus set. The witnesses flew to Cedar Rapids with federal agents and testified under oath, as planned, that they had been hired as minors and had suffered injuries at Agriprocessors from dangerous machinery and chemicals.


They utterly failed, however, to persuade the jury.


As the jury foreman later commented, “All of them admitted they had lied about their ages to get jobs in Postville. Who could be sure of their true age? There were other credibility issues. And none of the witnesses established a direct line of guilt from the charges to the defendant.”


It didn’t help the government’s cause that the immigrant witnesses had been coached, in almost all instances, by the same attorney, Ms. Sonia Konrad Parras, and ended mimicking each other. When confronted with inconsistencies in their testimony, all fell back on scripted responses of “I don’t know/I don’t remember/I don’t understand.”


The Elephant In The Room


A sweeping acquittal, like an elephant in the room, is a hard thing to ignore, or explain away, especially when state prosecutors had two years to prepare the case, and the most successful attorneys in the D.A. office were entrusted with the task. How is it that they couldn’t make any of the charges stick?


Argueta has government spokesmen in the film rationalizing that “labor violations are very hard to prove,” that the judge “set the bar too high.”


Labor violations are hard to prove? There were over thirty USDA inspectors throughout the plant any time of day, and scores of human resources personnel, company managers and supervisors that could have been subpoenaed to testify about labor violations. Why weren’t they?


Moreover, the prosecution was led by the highly competent District Attorney Tom Miller, who had unlimited resources at his disposal. With the state of Iowa cash strapped and state employees sent on “forced furloughs” to save the state money, Miller still won an allocation of thousands of dollars for the purpose of flying the Guatemalan witnesses to Iowa to give testimony at the child-labor trial.


Obviously bitter about losing such a high-profile case, Miller made a pathetic attempt at salvaging some dignity by insisting that “abundant evidence of extortion and abuse of workers” at Agriprocessors did exist. He declined to explain, however, why none of this “abundant evidence” was produced at trial.


Why Were They Applauding?


As the documentary completely loses its way, trading an important historical narrative for an undisguised hate-Rubashkin agenda, the audience seems to forget the educational purpose of the documentary.


Viewers at the Manhattan screening became fully engrossed in the film’s changed focus – the criminal profile of Sholom Mordechai as described by federal prosecutors – and reinforced by the unsmiling, tough-looking Sholom Mordechai that stared at the audience from the documentary screen.


As the final clip played, with the audience receiving the information that “the accused was sentenced to 27 years in prison,” the room actually erupted in applause. As if the Postville saga of human suffering culminates with the “villain” receiving due punishment for his crimes.


But how did Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin come to be the villain in this tale that purports to be about rampant government injustice toward an immigrant population?


How did he come to be the focus of a documentary that advertises its purpose as “raising awareness of the human toll of the ICE raid, and encouraging the debate about immigration reform?”


Shortchanging His Own Countrymen


The lie embedded at the heart of this film deals a serious injustice not only to Sholom Mordechai. By removing the spotlight from the government, Argueta short-circuits the film’s stated mission and shortchanges his own fellow countrymen whose cause he professes to be fighting for.


Why aren’t the faces of Homeland Security officials who ordered the raid staring from the documentary screen? What of people like former Iowa attorney Matt Dummermuth whose office oversaw the Postville prosecutions, and Judge Linda Reade who did the most to fast-track the “assembly-line” criminal proceedings at the National Cattle Congress? Why are their pictures and allegations of their misconduct not featured for the audience’s edification?


Make Up Your Mind, Luis


In addition to the intellectual and factual dishonesty that laces the film, the bias that drives the documentary is on display in the author’s double standard regarding government reliability.


When it comes to government claims that the arrestees were treated with decency and compassion, Argueta makes a compelling case for government manipulation of the truth. The film also exposes the sham in the charges of identity fraud and document fraud to which the immigrants were forced to plead guilty.


Yet, the film’s producer has no problem using the very same governmental voice that falsely criminalized the immigrants as his authority for criminalizing Sholom Mordechai.


So which is it, Mr. Argueta? How can you trash government credibility while at the same time use it to prop up the demonization of someone you don’t like?


In the grand scheme, given the anti-immigration mood of the country, the documentary is not likely to exert much political influence. But before turning the page on this sorry episode, for accuracy’s sake, let’s zero in on Argueta’s chief cinematic prop – the mysterious tough-looking picture of Sholom Mordechai that evoked such a strong audience response at the Manhattan screening. Where was this picture taken? What does it represent?


The Payroll Crisis


Although the picture is thoroughly cropped, family members and some Postville residents had no trouble identifying it. The original was taken by a news reporter in the middle of a payroll crisis at Agriprocessors, the Friday after the 2008 ICE raid. It appeared in a local paper along with an item about the crisis.


In the original image, Sholom Mordechai is surrounded by concerned Guatemalan employees who are hoping to collect the paychecks of their husband/wife/sister/brother imprisoned in Iowa jails after the raid. He’s talking with an interpreter while holding negotiations over his cell phone with the company’s lawyer, trying to find a legal means of distributing the checks to family members.


State regulations forbid the disbursement of payroll checks to anyone but the person to whom the check is made out. In keeping with the law, the payroll checks would have to be mailed to the prisoners and signed by them. Only then could they be given over to family members.


Mr. Chaim Abrahams of Postville, a former manager at Agriprocessors, says he vividly remembers the crisis that ensued when the state refused to bend regulations.


Panic Sets In


With the breadwinners in so many families jailed indefinitely, the families were in a state of panic and turmoil, Abrahams recalled. Financially strapped, with nowhere to turn, they hoped at least to make use of the last payroll check due their husband or father, or whomever money was owed to.


As news reached them that the state would not grant permission for payroll checks to be disbursed to anyone but the parties to whom they were made out, despair set in.


“This was a terrible time for Sholom Mordechai,” Abrahams recalled in a phone interview with Yated. “The company was reeling after the raid. Sholom Mordechai and others were making a massive effort to keep Agriprocessors going, but it didn’t look good. There were federal investigations underway, FBI agents all over the place. Everyone was tense and scared. In the middle of all this, the families came begging for the payroll checks.


“It was Erev Shabbos. Sholom could have sat in his office and let someone else tell them the bad news – that the government refused to authorize the checks to be disbursed. But he didn’t do that. He came outside to talk to the people. He heard their pleas and reassured them that he would find a way to help them get the money.


“Then he got on the phone with the company lawyer, Jay Eaton of the Nyemaster law firm. He begged him to find a resolution to the dilemma. Eaton and another lawyer started making phone calls to lawyers for the state. All kinds of solutions were proposed. The back and forth with state lawyers dragged on for hours.


“At one point, Sholom pledged to cover any financial liability that would occur if a check was disbursed to the wrong person and the rightful party made out a legal complaint. The total possible liability came to $150,000.


“The fortune in legal fees the crisis was costing doubled this amount. Yet Sholom was willing to pay it to help these people,” Abrahams recalled. “The amount of good will, energy and money he poured into this affair – and at such a terrible time for the company – is something unbelievable.”


From Sholom Mordechai


Writing from prison, Sholom Mordechai adds the following:


“We initiated contact with the Postville church, asking for their help in getting the payroll checks to the families of the jailed workers. We wanted church officials to certify that the people signing the checks were in fact who they claimed to be. The plan was for the Freedom Bank of Postville to honor the church’s certification, and if the State agreed, to cash the checks.”


Sholom Mordechai remembers making his way first to the grounds outside the church to talk to the families of the arrested workers and then to the bank to negotiate an arrangement with the bank manager, Stan Straate.


After discussions with Straate and the bank president, an agreement was reached, pending a go-ahead by state officials. The bank also agreed to remain open past closing time so that the checks could be cashed before the bank closed for the weekend.


On his way back to the church to update the families, Sholom Mordechai received the bad news. His lawyer notified him that the state refused to budge. Not only that, but he was warned by a lawyer for the state, Ms. Gail Sheridan Lucht, that the state would press separate criminal charges for each and every check issued deliberately to the wrong party.


Sholom Mordechai recalls: “I was standing in the middle of the crowd when this news came in. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. There was a humanitarian crisis here and the reaction was, ‘We couldn’t care less.’ We had offered to take complete liability. Church officials, bank officials, we were all working on this together because of the desperate situation these families were in.


“I felt angry and outraged at the lack of caring on the part of the state. They didn’t want to be bothered. It didn’t concern them.”


The Telltale Photo


Outside the church, with immigrants crowding hopefully around him, Sholom Mordechai struggled to describe the situation to an interpreter. Reporters accosted him and cameras flashed. A picture appeared the following day of Sholom Mordechai in the middle of a crowd of immigrants, cell phone in hand, looking pained, grim, and angry.


“Latinos hope for agreement on distributing paychecks,” the caption read. “Immigrants waited in St. Bridget’s Church on Friday as lawyers from the Archdiocese of Dubuque and Agriprocessors meat-packing plant tried to devise a way to get paychecks to the plant’s workers,” KCRG reported.


This picture was later used in local news broadcasts and articles about Sholom Mordechai. And fully cropped and placed in a sinister context, it was appropriated for ignoble purposes by Luis Argueta, author and producer of the Postville documentary.




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