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Postville shows we need immigration reform

May 12, 2010
Mark Grey and Michele Yehieli
May 17, 2008

Mark Grey and Michele Yehieli

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on the Agriprocessors Inc. kosher meatpacking plant in Postville is just one symptom of the desperately poor health of our nation's immigration system. The arrest of some 395 immigrants, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico, stripped the plant of most of its workforce, sent the community of Postville reeling and will have a dramatic impact on the lives the detainees and their families for years to come.

Proponents of cracking down on illegal immigration have rejoiced, while immigration advocates have shifted into overdrive to assist detainees and their families.

We, too, shifted into high gear these last few days. We have been working in Postville and numerous other immigrant communities in Iowa for several years.

In one sense, the ICE action in Postville did not come as a surprise and, indeed, was expected. Persistent stories and rumors have circulated for years that the kosher plant routinely hired illegal immigrants from around the world. Yet, this does not diminish the human toll of this operation.

We visited St. Bridget's Catholic Church, which has served as a de facto asylum for hundreds of the detainees and their families. At one point, some 300 Latinos were sleeping and eating there, crammed into the only place they felt reasonably sure "La Migra" (Spanish slang for ICE) would not take them. The scene inside the church was reminiscent of some of the refugee camps we have seen in developing nations or after Hurricane Katrina.

Likewise, many of the local white Iowa residents of Postville appeared shell-shocked and traumatized in their own way. Many we spoke with lamented the economic and community devastation of the raid, as seen by the eerily empty streets, deserted businesses and abandoned rental properties after the ICE operation. The futures of many of these people, and Postville itself, are uncertain.

The Postville situation provides one more piece of evidence that our immigration laws and procedures are broken. Indeed, our immigration laws have simply not kept up with the economic and other realities of globalization and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which in many ways eliminated trade and financial barriers among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, but did not adequately address the need for the flow of labor across these borders.

When we are confronted about the presence of illegal immigrants from Latin American in Iowa, it is often assumed that illegal immigrants come to Iowa because "they can get away with it." This is utter nonsense. Immigrants -- legal or illegal -- come to Iowa because we employ them. Migrants are motivated to leave their homes because of a lack of jobs and they are tempted to come here because of the availability of jobs, good education for the children and safe communities. If we did not employ them, they would not come here.

After NAFTA, the imbalance of economic opportunities between most of Mexico and Central America and the United States has become so distinct that we have created the conditions that force migrants to come here.

We note that the media has turned much of its attention of late to the owners and managers of the packing plant, asking basic and long-standing questions about their role in hiring so many illegal workers. We welcome this inquiry.

Who is, after all, responsible for a labor network that recruits and then exploits a vulnerable and highly malleable immigrant workforce other than the employers themselves? As the evidence about wages and other exploitation in the plant mounts and some of the detainees have launched their own lawsuits seeking justice for being caught in a human trafficking network, the drum beat to do something about the plant owners will grow louder and louder.

And it should.

However, we must not lose sight of the role that we all play as consumers in the United States as a critical, but often overlooked part, of the tangled web of global economic forces that contributed to human disasters like that in northeast Iowa this week.

It has been too easy for too many years for most Americans to overlook the fact that immigrant laborers process the majority of the meat and pick most of the produce that they eat. The price of produce and meat in the United States is reasonable and affordable for many of us because it has often been produced on the backs of the poor and exploited.

Americans must recognize that their desire for cheap foods and inexpensive goods is the ultimate driving force that contributes to the economic exploitation of migrants, and many of us are simply not willing to pay the higher costs for products that are processed or picked by legal workers with salaries and benefits that would truly be commensurate with the dangerous, exhausting duties of their jobs.

Indeed, the situation in Postville is just the latest example of why we need comprehensive immigration reform that takes into account all of the players in the new global economic order: the workers, the companies and the consumers. The immigrant laborers taken in the Postville raid were clearly willing to risk everything to work in low-paying and difficult jobs at the kosher plant. Why not give these willing workers the opportunity to come here and work legally?

As long as we have an immigration system that provides incentives for the undocumented to risk working here illegally and provides incentives for employers to exploit these desperate workers, situations like that in Postville will continue. We have set up a system that rewards immigrants and employers to cheat, and then we unfairly blame the workers and their families for being here in the first place to meet our desire for cheap food.

Walking through the refugee camp in the Postville Catholic church this week certainly drove home for us the human toll our immigration system, or lack of it, can take on otherwise decent, God-fearing and hard-working people. They are a long way from home, sojourners, and we hope they will be able to return some day to their homes and live normal lives again.

Mark Grey is the director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration at the University of Northern Iowa. Michele Yehieli is the director of the Iowa Center for Health Disparities at the University of Northern Iowa.