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Democrats Decry Immigration Raid at Iowa Processing Plant

May 20, 2008
Democrats are criticizing a recent government work-site raid targeted at illegal employees, asserting that the action separated parents from their children and devastated the local community. They called for a greater focus on employers who are breaking the law.

Witnesses at a House Education and Labor subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, May 20, testified that a May 12 operation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville, Iowa, left hundreds of children in the lurch as their parents disappeared.

The raid resulted in the administrative arrest of 389 undocumented workers—out of about 900 employees at the meat processing plant. Of those who were caught in the sting, 304 were later arrested on criminal charges.

Members of Congress and experts said the way the operation was carried out hurt children and their families. They said the growing emphasis on enforcement, in the absence of broader immigration reform, is leading to inhumane treatment of foreign workers and their families.

“Children are paying the highest price of all for our broken immigration policies,” said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas. “They are being torn from their families. This represents a moral and humanitarian crisis for this nation.”

Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, said the damage is not limited to immigrants.

“There is substantial and growing evidence that the use of workplace raids as an immigration enforcement strategy is causing great harm to children, schools, child care centers and communities well beyond the immigrant population,” she said.

But an immigration official said his agency worked with public health officials to identify the status of children affected by the Iowa raid. James Spero, acting deputy assistant director of the ICE office of investigations, said 62 of those arrested were conditionally released for humanitarian purposes.

“ICE takes extraordinary efforts to ensure that its law enforcement operations are conducted in a safe, humane and professional manner, including extensive pre-operational planning and coordination,” Spero said.

Beyond the harm they say is done to children, Democrats argued the government’s approach to work-site crackdowns is misguided.

During the last two years, the Department of Homeland Security, which houses ICE, has significantly stepped up the number of workplace investigations and raids it executes. It’s part of the Bush administration’s effort to target the “job magnet” that fosters illegal immigration.

But Democrats say the DHS is putting too much emphasis on rounding up workers and not enough on targeting their employers.

“We have adopted as a country an enforcement-only policy,” said Rep. Tim Bishop, D-New York. “Why is it that so much for our enforcement focuses on workers and not on management?”

In recent operations, the DHS has touted steep fines and criminal charges it is pursuing against executives at companies it alleges uses illegal hiring as a systematic business practice.

Republicans at the hearing accused Democrats of trying to divert attention from the need to enforce immigration laws and pass legislation that would strengthen workplace verification.

“All of us have real compassion for the children,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California. “ What seems to bother my constituents is we’re not enforcing the law or selectively enforcing the law.”

Republicans and conservative Democrats are trying to bypass the committee process and send directly to the House floor a bill that would bolster border security and work-site enforcement. But they are 31 signatures short of the number needed to force action.

One of the groups aligned against them is the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which is advocating comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path toward residency for the approximately 12 million undocumented people in the United States.

Last year, a broad immigration reform bill died in the Senate amid political acrimony that remains intense. While the sides are at a stalemate, enforcement has filled the vacuum.

The result has hurt hundreds of families, according to the Hispanic congressional group, because ICE has used scare tactics and targeted social services like child care centers as they try to catch illegal parents.

“ICE needs to re-examine its priorities,” said Rep. Joe Baca, D-California and chair of the Hispanic caucus. “These are real families and real children whose lives are affected by these raids.”

Spero said ICE balances enforcing the law and addressing humanitarian concerns.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.