Out of work and facing deportation proceedings, many of the immigrants say they now have nothing to lose in speaking up about the conditions in the plant. They have told investigators that they were routinely put to work without safety training and were forced to work long shifts without overtime or rest time. Under-age workers said their bosses knew how young they were.
Because of the dangers of the work, it is illegal in Iowa for a company to employ anyone under 18 on the floor of a meatpacking plant.
In a statement, Agriprocessors said it did not employ workers under 18, and would fire any under-age worker found to have presented false documents to obtain work.
To investigate the child labor accusations, the federal Labor Department has joined with the Iowa Division of Labor Services in cooperation with the state attorney general’s office, officials for the three agencies said.
Sonia Parras Konrad, an immigration lawyer in private practice in Des Moines, is representing many of the young workers. She said she had so far identified 27 workers under 18 who were employed in the packing areas of the plant, most of them illegal immigrants from Guatemala, including some who were not arrested in the raid.
“Some of these boys don’t even shave,” Ms. Parras Konrad said. “They’re goofy. They’re teenagers.”
At a meeting here Saturday, three members of the House Hispanic Caucus — including the chairman of the caucus’s immigration task force, Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois — heard seven immigrant minors describe working in the Agriprocessors plant.
Iowa labor officials said they rarely encounter child labor cases even though the state has many meatpacking plants.
“We don’t normally have many under-age folks working in our state,” said Gail Sheridan-Lucht, a lawyer for the state labor department, who said she could not comment specifically on the Agriprocessors investigation.
Other investigations are also under way. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is examining accusations of sexual harassment of women at the plant. Lawyers for the immigrants are preparing a suit under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act for wage and hour violations.
Federal justice and immigration officials, speaking on Thursday at a hearing in Washington of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said their investigations were continuing. A federal grand jury in Cedar Rapids is hearing evidence.
While federal prosecutors are primarily focusing on immigration charges, they may also be looking into labor violations. Search warrant documents filed in court before the raid, which was May 12, cited a report by an anonymous immigrant who was sent to work in the plant by immigration authorities as an undercover informant. The immigrant saw “a rabbi who was calling employees derogatory names and throwing meat at employees.” Jewish managers oversee the slaughtering and processing of meat at Agriprocessors to ensure kosher standards.
In another episode, the informant said a floor supervisor had blindfolded an immigrant with duct tape. “The floor supervisor then took one of the meat hooks and hit the Guatemalan with it,” the informant said, adding that the blow did not cause “serious injuries.”
So far, 297 illegal immigrants from the May raid have been convicted of document fraud and other criminal charges, and most were sentenced to five months in prison, after which they will be deported.
A spokesman for Agriprocessors, Menachem Lubinsky, said the company could not comment on an active investigation.
“The company has two objectives in mind: to restore its production to meet the demands of the kosher food market and to be in full compliance with all local, state and federal laws,” Mr. Lubinsky said. Reports of labor violations at the plant “remain allegations only, that no agency has charged the company with,” he said.
The Agriprocessors kosher plant here has been owned and operated since 1987 by Aaron Rubashkin and his family. His son Sholom was the plant’s top manager until he was removed by his father in May after the raid. The plant’s products are distributed across the country under brands including Aaron’s Best and Aaron’s Choice.
Most of the young immigrants were hired at Agriprocessors after they presented false Social Security cards or other documents saying they were older than they were.
But in an interview here, Elmer L. said he had told floor supervisors that he was under 18. He asked that his last name not be published on advice of his lawyer, Ms. Parras Konrad, because he is a minor in deportation proceedings.
“They asked me how old I was,” Elmer L. said. “They could see that sometimes I could not keep up with the work.”
Elmer L. said that he regularly worked 17 hours a day at the plant and was paid $7.25 an hour. He said he was not paid overtime consistently.
“My work was very hard, because they didn’t give me my breaks, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep,” he said. “They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained.”
Elmer L. said that he was clearing cow innards from the slaughter floor last Aug. 26 when a supervisor he described as a rabbi began yelling at him, then kicked him from behind. The blow caused a freshly-sharpened knife to fly up and cut his elbow.
He was sent to a hospital where doctors closed the laceration with eight stitches. But he said that when he returned, his elbow still stinging, to ask for some time off, his supervisor ordered him back to work.
The next day, as he was lifting a cow’s tongue, the stitches ruptured, Elmer L. said, and the wound bled again. He said he was given a bandage at the plant and sent back to work. The incident is confirmed in a worker’s injury report filed on Aug. 31, 2007, by Agriprocessors with the Iowa labor department.
Gilda O., a Guatemalan who said she was 16, said she worked the night shift plucking chickens. She said she was working to help her parents pay off debts.
Another Guatemalan, Joel R., who gave his age as 15, said he dropped out of school in Postville after the eighth grade and took a job at Agriprocessors because his mother became ill. He said he worked from 5.30 p.m. to 6.30 a.m. in a section called “quality control,” a job he described as relatively easy that he got because he speaks English.
But he said he and other workers were under constant pressure from supervisors. “They yell at us when we don’t hurry up, when we don’t work fast enough for them,” said Joel R. He and Gilda O. did not want their last names published because they are illegal immigrants and they were not arrested in the raid.
Most of the young immigrants have been released from detention but remain in deportation proceedings. Ms. Parras Konrad said she will ask immigration authorities to grant them special four-year temporary visas, known as U visas, which are offered to immigrants who assist in law enforcement investigations. Iowa labor officials are considering supporting some of those requests, Ms. Sheridan-Lucht said.
Agriprocessors executives said they had begun an overhaul of hiring and labor practices, starting with hiring a compliance officer, James G. Martin, a former United States attorney in Missouri. In an interview, Mr. Martin said the company had contracted with an outside firm, the Jacobson Staffing Company, to handle its hiring, and new safety officers, including one former federal work safety inspector.
Mark Lauritsen, a vice president for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has tried to organize the plant, said he remained skeptical. “They are the poster child for how a rogue company can exploit a broken immigration system,” Mr. Lauritsen said.
An article on Sunday about a raid at a meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa, in May that captured more than 20 under-age illegal immigrant workers misstated part of the name of a union that has tried to organize at the plant. It is the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, not the International Food and Commercial Workers Union.
An article last Sunday about under-age immigrant workers who were detained in a raid in May at a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, misidentified the position that Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois, holds in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He is chairman of the caucus’s immigration task force, not chairman of the caucus. (The head of the caucus is Representative Joe Baca, Democrat of California, who, like Mr. Gutierrez, visited Postville on July 26.)
It seems like only yesterday that we heard of the horror coming out of Postville, Iowa.
Immigrants -- 389 to be exact -- were arrested at a local meat processing plant and literally treated like cattle by hundreds of federal agents. They were rounded up at their worksite, the Agriprocessors Inc. plant, chuted through a legal processing system that cut off their civil rights to defend themselves and then detained at a cattle exhibit hall.
For weeks and months afterwards, the public learned of the abuses of workers at the plant. We learned about women who were sexually assaulted by supervisors and of underage employees among those on the "kill" floor of the plant who worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week without overtime pay. The immigration system proved no fairer, as families were separated and individuals were released from the cattle barn wearing electronic homing bracelets to fight their deportation cases in immigration court.
"How many more Postvilles do we have to have" before enacting comprehensive immigration reform? asked Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a champion of immigrants' rights and reform.
Postville happened five years ago this week. We are still waiting for immigration reform.
The embarrassment of Postville forced the federal government to change its tactics, but the senseless immigration system and the fears held by hard working families continue.
Instead of continuing the Bush administration's military-style raids where hundreds of agents stormed worksites across the nation, the Obama administration has focused on "silent raids" in which businesses known for hiring low-wage workers are targeted for audits and forced to turn over their hiring records. These records are reviewed to verify the legal status of workers, upending business operations across the U.S. and trampling on the rights of workers and families.
The administration has also continued detaining and deporting immigrants in record numbers - the very same aspiring citizens who should be on the road to citizenship.
Replacing one bad policy with another is not the solution. Congress now has an opportunity to correct abusive employers' perverse incentives to use the broken immigration system to undercut all workers' labor rights.
The Senate's bipartisan proposal to revamp our immigration laws is a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million immigrants currently in the U.S. without documents. As the workers gain legal status, the opportunities for exploitation by unscrupulous employers should diminish.
To ensure that the civil and labor rights of workers are protected, the bipartisan immigration bill now pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee includes the proposed Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act. The bill would protect workers from retaliation if they blow the whistle on their employers. It also would let them demand back pay and reinstatement when they face retaliatory termination. It would keep unscrupulous employers from exploiting workers -- a practice that undermines employers who play by the rules.
Instead of being chased by federal agents, workers also would be allowed an administrative review when immigration consequences based on their employment arise.
The National Immigration Law Center proudly supports this campaign because immigrant workers are too often abused, denied fair wages, forced to work in unsafe conditions and then threatened by the employer with immigration enforcement if they complain. The exploitation of some workers hurts all workers as employers "race to the bottom" regarding labor and civil rights and fair wages.
Unfortunately, the national push for commonsense immigration reform threatens to come undone at the hands of one of Postville's own senators.
Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, filed 77 amendments to the bipartisan proposal, mostly designed to kill the bill and the proposed legalization program.
Last weekend, as the fifth anniversary of the Postville raids approached, immigrants' rights advocates, including church leaders, delivered a letter to Grassley's office in Cedar Rapids, pleading with him to support fair and just immigration reform and to remember the tragedy that occurred in his home state. Among those participating in the Postville commemoration was Sister Mary McCauley of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was among the first to respond to crisis and provide support five years ago.
"I have not yet been able to transform his heart," Sister Mary said of the senator, "but I am not going to give up."
None of us can give up until we have an immigration system that respects human dignity and civil rights.