[Editor's note: This story was originally published in The Gazette's Tuesday, May 13, 2008 edition.]
POSTVILLE — More than 300 people have been arrested on immigration-related charges and hundreds more may be charged after a raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville.
The federal raid was the largest such operation in one location in Iowa history.
The women workers arrested are being housed in county jails. The male workers were taken to a temporary detention facility on the National Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo.
Agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement entered the Agriprocessors plant with 697 arrest warrants for plant employees, according to search warrants released by federal officials. The criminal complaints charge aggravated identify theft, fraudulent use of Social Security numbers and other crimes.
Based on the plant ‘s fourth-quarter payroll reports, about 76 percent of the plant ‘s 968 employees were using false or fraudulent Social Security numbers, according to the search warrant.
The government is “committed to enforcing the nation’s immigration laws in the workplace to maintain the integrity of the nation’s legal immigration system,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Bloomington, Minn.
The plant shut down after officials presented the search warrants at 10 a.m. Monday.
The warrants cited a former plant supervisor, identified only as “Source 1,” who said roughly 80 percent of the foreign nationals working at the plant — from Mexico, Guatemala and Eastern Europe — were living in the United States illegally. That person said he was fired when he alerted a higher-level manager to employees running a methamphetamine lab in the plant and bringing weapons to work.
Violeta Aleman of Decorah said she was working in the plant ‘s kitchen when a man ran past her a little after 10 a.m. “I asked him, ‘Please, tell me what’s going on.’ He said, ‘Immigration is here.’”
She said the workers were taken to the cafeteria and ordered into lines — one for U.S. citizens and one for legal residents. Those without documents were told to stay seated.
Aleman, a citizen since 2003, said she called her husband to bring her passport to the plant .
On her way out, she said, she walked past a group of detainees, many of whom she knew. Some asked her to make a phone call for them, others asked her to take their belongings and cell phones home with her.
“They were just looking at me,” she said, her voice breaking. “There was nothing I could do.”
Dozens of state troopers and immigration agents were stationed at the entrance of the plant , which processes kosher beef and chicken.
The questioning of plant workers continued throughout the day inside the plant . Workers were then put on white Homeland Security buses for transport to Waterloo, where the federal government has leased Estel Hall, the merchants’ showroom, for use as a detention center. Windows of the buses were covered with white paper.
Three buses had arrived at Estel Hall by 6 p.m. Workers will be detained until at least Wednesday night, according to Tim Counts, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Federal judges and other court staffers from the U.S. Northern District of Iowa are being relocated to Waterloo to handle the court appearances. Suspects are not being identified at this time.
Matt Dummermuth, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, said the investigation into the Agriprocessors plant began in October.
Postville Mayor Bob Penrod, expressing support for the city’s Hispanic community and for Agriprocessors, said the City Council was meeting last night to discuss what the city can do. “It’s going to have a dramatic effect on this city,” he said. “If we lose everybody, this will be a ghost town.”
At an afternoon news conference in Cedar Rapids, Counts, the immigration office spokesman, said he would not say whether other companies or locations would be raided .
In Waterloo, a half-dozen people gathered across from the main entrance of the Cattle Congress, waving two Mexican flags. Among them was Beth Berger, 23, of Waterloo. She said her boyfriend, Cesar Gonzalez, has not reported to work at a Waterloo company since Friday night for fear of being arrested. Berger, who is expecting Gonzalez’s child in less than four months, said she was scared but wanted to show support for the detainees.
She said Gonzalez, 20, is in the United States illegally and sends money home to Guatemala to support his mother, sister and two brothers. She said he has 10 family members working at the Agriprocessors plant . At least one cousin has been arrested, she said.
“They act like they’re animals,” Berger said. “They’re not animals. They’re just like everybody else.”
Immigration agent Arnold said agents asked detainees “several times” if they had medical, child care or other humanitarian needs. Forty-four people were released “under supervision,” mostly because they are the primary caregivers of children.
“We’re doing things the way we always do from a humanitarian standpoint,” Arnold said.
Gov. Chet Culver said he had been informed last week of the impending raid and was briefed Monday morning by the U.S. attorney.
“I believe it’s important that we crack down on illegal immigration,” Culver said, adding he also wants the government to look at “those who are responsible for making it happen — traffickers, identity thieves, those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and anyone who has taken advantage of employees or turned a blind eye.”
Culver set up a working group of state agencies under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Patty Judge to ensure the state is assisting communities in dealing with the arrests.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, said his immediate concern was for the families and seeing if federal authorities bring any charges against the employer, which did not happen after the Swift Company raid in Marshalltown in December 2006.
Rod Boshart and Jeff Raasch of The Gazette and news correspondent Meghan Powers contributed to this report.