Recalling the Postville Tragedy: Impetus for Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill

Postville- 5 years ago
Postville- Five years ago
Harvey Popolow, Magen Tzedek Commission, Executive Director

Five years ago this week the largest single-site immigration raid in the US to date occurred in Postville, Iowa.  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials raided Agriprocessors, the main processor of kosher meat in the United States, handcuffed some 300 immigrants and bussed them to a fairground. The immigrant workers, most of them without prior criminal records, were offered a plea agreement in exchange for a guilty plea to lesser charges. Most detainees were charged with identity theft and spent five months in prisons across the country before they were deported.  In a matter of hours, Postville lost a significant amount of its population and worse yet; hundreds of families were torn apart and financially devastated.

Fortunately many faith based social justice agencies mobilized to provide physical and spiritual comfort to these dazed and confused families. Jewish relief agencies organized fundraising and on-site support for these shattered families, who suffered due to illegal practices of a kosher food operators expected to be upholding Jewish ethical values.  In fact, the tragedy of Postville goes back more than five years; just in a different injustice.  Agriprocessors were known to treat their workers and animals poorly, violating both kashrut rituals and Jewish ethics.  Fearing retribution, these workers suffered in silence as no system existed to monitor Agriprocessors ethics.

Two years before the raid, the Conservative Judaism movement organized the first response to Postville, and in 2007 developed an independent ethics audit system for the kosher food industry known as the Magen Tzedek Shield of Justice.  This system awards certification to companies meeting exemplary behavior in five areas including workers’ rights.  Jewish consumers and kosher food companies must now embrace Magen Tzedek certification to ensure immigrant workers are treated with dignity as they pursue a righteous path to citizenship

The current Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill headed for congressional debate is the most promising piece of legislature ever seen in this area.  Establishing a roadmap for those individuals seeking a new life of opportunities, and passionate about becoming new Americans, can become a reality with the passage of the CIR bill and the rapid adoption of Magen Tzedek ethical standards in the workplace.