Postville detainees feel misused by Agriprocessors, government
Orlan Love • The Gazette
Workers at the former Agriprocessors meatpacking plant said they are angry and disappointed that the U.S. government dismissed its immigration charges against plant manager Sholom Rubashkin.
The immigrants said they consider it an injustice that the man accused of breaking laws to exploit them has gotten off, while they had to endure imprisonment, separation from family and other hardships for essentially consenting to be exploited.
“We were all punished, and charges are dismissed against the one who broke all the laws and caused all the suffering,” said Quendi Garcia-Vega, who came to Postville from Mexico 10 years ago.
"They took advantage of my ignorance. They told us if we did not plead guilty, we would be going to prison for two years,” said Rodriguez.
She and 10 other immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala — all of whom either served time in prison or were required to wear a GPS tracking device in the aftermath of the May 12, 2008, immigration raid at Agriprocessors — spoke recently of their perceived mistreatment at the plant and by the U.S. government.
“Even though Rubashkin did not get convicted on the immigration charges, I hope he will have time to think about the misery he caused,” said Garcia-Vega, one of more than 40 Latino women ordered to wear the tracking devices following their release from custody to care for children.
That should be the case, given that Rubashkin, 50, faces centuries in prison after his Nov. 12 conviction on 86 charges, including bank fraud and money laundering. The 72 immigration charges, including harboring and aiding and abetting the harboring of illegal immigrants for profit, were dismissed a week later.
The immigrants also said they felt cheated that the conditions at the plant and its allegedly deceptive and illegal hiring practices were not exposed to the scrutiny of a public trial.
Jesus Loera-Gallegos, one of two dozen illegal immigrants who had been detained after serving his prison term to testify as a material witness, said the dismissal of the immigration charges means he will likely be deported soon.
“They have Sholom, and now they don’t need us anymore. They will kick us in the rear and tell us to leave the country,” said Loera-Gallegos, who came to Postville from Mexico 11 years ago.
Loera-Gallegos, who works at an Elkader lumberyard now, said he would have liked to have told the court how Agriprocessors lied to and took advantage of its employees.
Following the dismissal of Rubashkin’s immigration charges, the government filed a motion releasing the potential material witnesses. A federal magistrate last week granted a motion filed by former Agriprocessors supervisor Brent Beebe, asking that they not be released until after his Jan. 19 trial on charges of aiding and abetting illegal workers, harboring illegal workers and document fraud.
The immigrants who were incarcerated said they were railroaded into guilty pleas because of their ignorance of U.S. law and their rights. They also said they were treated badly in prison.
Loera-Gallegos said he was disappointed that his court-appointed attorney told him “to just sign my guilt, or I would get two years in prison.”
The authors of “Postville U.S.A.” — University of Northern Iowa professors Mark Grey and Michele Devlin and Postville businessman Aaron Goldsmith — said 302 detainees “were forced into a plea agreement” under which they would not be charged with felony aggravated identity theft if they pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of using a false Social Security number and accepted a five-month jail sentence and subsequent deportation.
Laura Castillo Rodriguez of Mexico City, Mexico, a Postville resident for the past three years, said the U.S. government “took advantage of us because we have no resources and no understanding of how the law works.”
“When I was chained up and bused to Waterloo, we were told that we had committed a crime and that we were going to prison. They took advantage of my ignorance. They told us if we did not plead guilty, we would be going to prison for two years,” said Rodriguez, who now wishes she had not pleaded guilty.
Rodriguez described her imprisonment as humiliating. She spent 11 days in solitary confinement in a small room called the “shoe” because it was so cramped, she said. Whenever she had a visitor, she had to undergo a strip search that included an inspection of her vagina for drugs, before and after the visit, she said.
“I would rather not have visitors than go through that,” she said.
Yukary Hernandez Gonzalez, who came to Postville four years ago from Mexico and turned 18 just before the raid, said she had no choice but to “see women inmates having sex with each other.”
Josue Muj Ixen of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, a seven-year resident of Postville, described his five months in federal prison as a nightmare. “I try every day to forget about it,” he said.
Roselia Ramirez Martinez, who came to Postville from Mexico eight years ago, said she is outraged that the U.S. government has forced her and 40 other Postville women to wear a GPS ankle bracelet since the raid.
“Why wouldn’t they trust us to stay here? We don’t want to leave. They left us with no job and no means to survive,” she said.
Estela Vega Nava, who came to Postville eight years ago from Mexico, said the ankle bracelet makes her feel “like an animal that has to be kept on a chain.”
Rosalva Lopez Nava of El barril San Luis Potosi, Mexico, a 13-year resident of Postville, said the GPS bracelets are a form of discrimination that branded the wearers as criminals.
Martinez said the immigrants believe their only crime was to take difficult, low-paying jobs unwanted by most U.S. citizens in an effort to improve the lives of their families.
“Honest people who like to work hard are now sad and depressed because they are unable to do so. We want to work. Labor is all we have, but we don’t have the legal documents to do so,” she said.
[Hat Tip: Neighbor Girl.]