Immigration Workplace Raids: “abUSed”
Last night, my co-worker Hannah Cole-Chu and I went to the DC premiere of the film “abUSed – The Postville Raid,” hosted by the Center for American Progress. We were lucky to get two seats at the showing, and we were inspired by the stories portrayed in the film.
“abUSed – The Postville Raid” tells the story of one of the largest and most expensive workplace immigration raids in the history of the country. On May 12, 2008, over 900 officials from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) entered Postville, Iowa – a town of just over 2,000 people and no traffic lights – and arrested almost 400 people working at the Agriprocessors meat packing plant. In the next 72 hours, ICE agents pushed groups of 10 people through the ‘judicial system’ that was temporarily set up in a nearby cattle auction house. Because crossing the border illegally is only a misdemeanor, they forced people to plead guilty to criminal charges of identity theft for using a false social security number to be employed. The average jail time served was 5 months, during which people where shuttled to facilities around the country. After they had served their sentence, mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives, were immediately deported to Mexico and Guatemala. The film not only describes the proceedings in May, 2008, it also amplifies the voices of the people in Postville, the families that were (often permanently) split by ICE that day, the economic impact on the town of the raid, and the judicial proceedings that occurred as a result of the raid.
Hannah and I were struck by several aspects of the film:
- Of course, we were moved by the stories of the families involved – the trauma endured by children (many of them U.S. citizens) and their parents. It was heartbreaking to hear a young girl talk about the disappearance of her mother, or to hear the teachers at the school try to describe the impact of the raid on the children.
- We were also alarmed at the raid’s impact on the life of the town: in just a few months, more than 80% of the rental properties were vacant, the small town was empty, the stores were boarded up, the economy collapsed, and virtually the entire town was bankrupt. In the discussion afterwards, Rev. David Vasquez (a star of the film for his work in Postville after the raid), Luis Argueta (the film’s director and producer), and others commented that though there may have been people in Postville who, on the day of the raid were happy that it was happening, soon everyone – including their local officials – realized the horror and the long-term impact of the raid was not positive at all.
- Another startling aspect of the film was the parts that were done in Guatemala with the people who had been deported there. Despite the poor conditions and inhumane experiences they had undergone in the U.S., the film still portrayed the United States as the land of opportunity and the American dream as a reality. This, for me, may have been the most heartbreaking aspect of the entire story.
- Hannah and I also talked a long time about the responsibility of employers – in this case, Agriprocessors Inc. – to follow health and labor regulations, and to hire only legal workers. It’s FCNL’s position, which is not shared by other organizations lobbying for immigration reform, that companies must not hire people who have false social security numbers. It is also our position that all companies must treat all employees in accordance with labor laws, including not hiring children. There were, in total, more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations filed against Agriprocessors, Inc., at their meat processing plant in Postville. Many people knew that they were working in unsafe conditions, knew that they weren’t being paid for the number of hours they were working, knew that they were under the federal age limit for operating the dangerous equipment they were working, but they were afraid or otherwise unable to request that their rights be fulfilled.
Hannah and I thoroughly recommend the film. It was not clear from Luis Argueta, the director and producer of the film, how it would be marketed or distributed to widening audiences, but if you have a chance to see it, or request to see it, please do. You can watch the 8-minute trailer on the film’s website.