In wake of Postville raid, US Jewish groups call for immigration reform

Under US law, only 5,000 visas a year are issued to low-skilled immigrants. This provided incentives to employ and often to exploit illegal immigrants.

The immigration raid at Agriprocessors' kosher meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa, in May in which 389 workers were arrested highlights the need for major immigration reform and for employers of illegal immigrants to be held accountable, Jewish leaders said at a press conference last week organized by the America's Voice organization. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which has advocated on behalf of immigrants since the 1880s, is leading the calls for reform. "When we talk about problems in Postville, we are talking about an individual case, but we are also talking about an endemic problem across the country, where employers are taking advantage of employees," said Gideon Aronoff, CEO and president of HIAS. Aronoff was joined by Rabbi Morris Allen, founder of the kosher ethical certification initiative Hekhsher Tzedek, Rev. Steve Brackett, pastor of Postville's St. Paul's Lutheran Church, and Rosalind Spigel, acting director of the Jewish Labor Committee. "If the accusations prove to be true they are very disturbing, but the story is much bigger than Agriprocessors and the kosher meat industry," Aronoff said. "The silver lining here is that this will help us educate the Jewish community about the significant crisis," he said. "This has to be solved nationwide, not just in the northeast corner of Iowa." Aronoff called for changes to employment laws that he said undermined legal workers and depressed wages at the lower end of the spectrum. Under US law, only 5,000 visas a year are issued to low-skilled immigrants. This provided incentives to employ and often to exploit illegal immigrants, he said. Aronoff also criticized the government's response to illegal immigrants, which he said consisted of raids, detention, criminal prosecution and deportation. He pointed to other recent raids in Houston and Annapolis, Maryland, as evidence of its failure. HIAS, which has already begun educating Jewish communities on immigration reform, advocates a "comprehensive approach" including a "humane" solution to the 12 million people living in the US without legal status. "We must focus on making sure that immigrants who come here are on the path to citizenship and integration, and not kept in the shadows, which is bad for Americans and Jews," Aronoff said. "We also need to expand the enforcement of law in an effective way rather than showboating, which is what these raids are," he added. Brackett spoke of the raid's impact on his community. "This set the town of Postville back at least 15 years," he said. "When the company first moved to Postville, the influx of workers were mostly transitional, single men who had no intention of settling down. But over time families began to settle. "We are losing families that have been with us for 10 to 14 years, and almost half of the elementary [school] students. Now we are back to square one, with a workforce of single men, who have no intention of settling," Brackett said. There have been several bar fights since replacements for the arrested workers were brought in, he added. Brackett also said there had been no state or federal funding to support the families of those now out of work or in jail. "I would settle for having one of the US representatives come and see what's going on, or [for] a delegation from Congress made up of both parties to come and see what lack of action in Congress has done regarding how we are currently enforcing immigration policy," he said. But immigration reform was not "politically expedient," Brackett continued. "It's not wise to take a stand on an immigration, issue especially during an election year." Meanwhile, various American Jewish youth organizations joined the boycott of Agriprocessors meat, among them B'nai B'rith Youth, Habonim Dror, Ramah, the Union for Reform Judaism, and Young Judaea.