Greed knows no religious boundary.
On May 12, 2008, the day federal immigration officials raided the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, I was two hours away at a hospital, waiting for my husband to have surgery.
The call came, and I, the only nearby reporter for the national news outlet that employed me, couldn’t go — wouldn’t go. A few hours later, as I sat beside my husband in a post-surgery recovery room, he made the decision.
“Go,” he said. I did — not just that day but nearly every day over the course of the next year, and for months after that. The story of Postville, told from the tiny town in northeastern Iowa and points beyond, forever changed me.
This month, President Donald Trump commuted the federal prison term of a man who profited significantly from the misery of others.
According to a statement released by the Trump administration, the action was taken because of bipartisan support for Sholom Rubashkin, son of plant owner Aaron Rubashkin, and the person charged with overseeing day-to-day operations at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant. Without a doubt, none of those individuals, Democrat or Republican, ever experienced Postville.
The sentence Rubashkin earned was far more compassionate than he deserved, and criminal prosecutions of plant management far more limited than was warranted.
And although I cannot be the first to say it, it bears repeating: That this businessman earned the support of politicians who adamantly rally against illegal immigration — as well as politicians that supposedly support workers’ rights — is such an utter disconnect from reality that every Iowan should be questioning why. The answer is as simple as what led to numerous travesties in Postville, what had otherwise good people willing to look the other way: Greed.
The extended Rubashkin family and their most prominent allies strategically spread their wealth around. It falls into Republican and Democratic pockets alike. This was true years before Postville became a national spectacle, with both former Iowa Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley benefiting directly from Rubashkin generosity. Include contributions by wealthy friends, or political donation bundling done by extended family members, and the pattern is as clear as the signs of unethical and unlawful business practices in Postville.
When people ask me about 2008 — what it was like in Postville before and after the raid; how it felt to sit in a historic dance hall converted into a temporary courtroom as 10 workers at a time were chained together and hustled before a judge; what it smelled like in the tiny and squalid apartments rented to plant workers; why I continued to cover the story despite threats; what I saw in the eyes of female workers strapped with a tracking anklet and left with no hope of providing for themselves or their children; how it felt to witness one community devastated by greed while others were devastated by floodwaters — I tell them it was one of the most difficult and complicated news stories I’ve covered. I tell them Postville broke my heart repeatedly, and tilted my perspective. There were no good guys in Postville.
Any area resident who didn’t comprehend the “company store” mentality and total disregard for law behind the Agriprocessors plant were surely clued in once Stephen Bloom’s “Postville” book was published. He documented abuses in Postville years before federal agents came knocking, most of which were then being perpetrated against European immigrants. When those workers wised up and moved on, the Rubashkin family turned to Latino immigrants, predominantly from Mexico and then Guatemala. Plant workers were provided false identities and illegal vehicles. Some were stacked into tiny apartments, many with unmitigated health dangers such as mold. These same workers reported extravagant rent prices, often taken directly from their paycheck.
When federal agents detained more than 400 plant workers — ultimately charging 389 with criminal identity theft and illegal entry — the Rubashkins turned to Somali immigrants. Yet advertisements touting good jobs in rural Iowa continued to circulate in Latin countries, and head hunters hired by the company imported homeless people from southern states. Few of the latter lasted beyond measly initial paychecks that had been slashed by numerous company deductions for equipment and rent. For the homeless, at least, there was no fear of deportation to keep them in place. But the situation put further strain on faith-based efforts to provide for children and workers detained in place.
Before the raid, the community wholly embraced its status as “hometown to the world,” and asked few questions. Locals told stories of school bus stops outside the plant gate, admitting underage Latino children. Vehicle license plates from other Iowa counties were commonplace, because they had been registered by “friends” in other counties, an illegal scheme perpetrated by a plant manager. Workers were provided access to these vehicles as employment “perks,” many saying they paid hundreds more than the cars were worth.
Female workers reported sexual favors were necessary to switch jobs, shifts and housing or to access vehicles. It’s worth noting that after the raid, when women were returned to the community by our government without a way to care for themselves or their children, some reported propositions of prostitution. “We know you need the money,” they were told.
Multiple companies and supposed charities were established by the Rubashkin family. All seemed to be used in one way or another to obscure the truth about how the nation’s then-largest provider of kosher meat was built on a foundation of undocumented workers, animal welfare violations and human rights offenses.
It was orchestrated nose thumbing at the law, and complete humanitarian disregard. And yet, when it all began to fall apart, no remorse or compassion was forthcoming. Creditors large and small, many of them Iowans, were left holding worthless promises.
Rubashkin was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 27 years, of which he served eight, thanks to President Donald Trump’s political play. Lower-level plant managers haven’t been as fortunate. Workers were convicted, served time and have since been deported. Many will never again set foot in this country, forever separated from loved ones.
The raid and its aftermath prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to dictate how workers in similar circumstances can be charged. Financial institutions and stockyards bilked out of money modified policies. The actual price of cheap meat, I learned, is far higher than I’m willing to pay. Despite new ownership at the plant, Postville has yet to recover.
Other things, like the ability of the wealthy and politically connected to escape justice, still looks unchanged.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Dec. 31, 2017.