Two Standards of Justice: Are Employers Paying a Price for Illegal Immigration?

In a rural Iowa town that was once a bustling model of small-town resurgence, scores of families are left to rely on local food pantries and churches for their meals. Parents have been left to  watch over their children while wearing ankle bracelets but are unable to seek work to provide for them.  The school’s population has been halved, and a gang of minors makes a weekly trip to Cedar Rapids to report to the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency which monitors their status. There’s nothing left to do but wait. Their fate doesn’t rest in their own hands, reports New America Media in a series of articles on the effects of the largest immigration raid in history has had on a local community.

And they are the lucky ones. Nearly 400 workers were arrested and detained in the largest immigration raid in history at Agriprocessors, a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.  Three-quarters of these workers were hustled through the legal system in a matter of a few weeks — arrested, detained and then allowed to plead guilty to charges they didn’t understand, unaware that they were facing criminal charges and were being sent to prison for sentences averaging five months each. The treatment of these workers lead a long-time court interpreter and college professor, Erik Camayd-Freixas, to break his professional code of silence to report on the abuses that these workers faced in a 12-page essay that made national headlines.  After serving time in jail, largely for identity theft including social security fraud, the workers will be deported back to their home countries, torn apart from their wives or children who are under government supervision in Postville.

For Agriprocessors, however, it’s back to business as usual. After a dip in production and escalating Kosher meat prices (the company produces about 40 percent of the country’s Kosher meat) production is nearly back to normal reports the Jewish Journal. So far only two low-level managers have been charged, despite the government accusing Agriprocessors of paying workers below the federal minimum wage, hiring minors, numerous safety violations and allegations of worker abuse that included a manager duct-taping one workers’ eyes and beating him with a meat hook. The company has also been accused of providing workers with false documentation, such as social security cards, to work at the plant.

There appears to be a stark disparity in the government prosecution of those who work illegally in this country and those who provide them with work despite bombastic claims by ICE officials that employers are no longer safe from prosecution.

“Employers who exploit illegal alien labor to reap greater profits for themselves can expect to pay a high price for their greed,” Julie L. Meyers, the ICE assistant secretary, was quoted as saying in a Houston Chronicle article on April 21st. “Whether the violator is a multinational corporation or a small business, ICE is aggressively targeting employers who use illegal alien workers to gain an unfair business advantage and take jobs away from legal workers.”

But critics point to past large-scale raids as proof that the agency has yet to put any muscle behind their promises.

Two years ago, ICE conducted a series of raids at Swift & Co., also a meat processor, and arrested 1,300 undocumented workers. To this day, only one union official has been charged for wrongdoing. Neither the company’s management or its owners face prosecution.

Representative Timothy Bishop (D-NY), questioned the role of federal enforcement at a May 20th hearing on the Postville raid.

“Is it not reasonable to assume that if over a third of the work force employed at this plant violated labor law, in one form or another, that management has to have some complicity in those violations?” he asked James Spero, a deputy assistant director for ICE, according to an Associated Press report.

Spero said that targeting employers was the goal of federal action, but so far illegal workers rather than their employers appear to be bearing the burden of increased ICE raids.

There’s been a 73 percent increase in criminal convictions of illegal immigrants since last year, according to a new Syracuse University report. The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement noted that immigration convictions are usually prosecuted as civil offenses, but since the institution of a federal initiative called Operation Streamline in Texas in 2005 criminal charges have been brought against undocumented workers. Criminal convictions bar illegal immigrants from obtaining legal residency.

In a statement released to the AP in June on the lack of prosecutions of employers, a spokeswoman for ICE, Kelly Nantel, said that the agency “must build work site investigations in stages.”

“Developing sufficient evidence against employers requires complex, white-collar crime investigations that can take years to bear fruit,” she said.

In an article in the Washington Post today, however, Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at Homeland Security blames the current laws.

“Why are employers not punished more often? Because the laws we have don’t really authorize that,” Baker told the Washington Post.

Years of investigation for employers, who often face no charges at all, while the workers they hire are often fast-tracked to criminal convictions. It makes one wonder if there are two standards of justice in operation under one set of laws.