POSTVILLE, IA — Four Homeland Security buses with U.S. Immigration and Customs tags on them have entered the Agriprocessors Inc. complex.
The buses, along with a trail of SUVs and vans with Minnesota license plates, arrived at about 11:45am
Federal agents descended upon this northeast Iowa community at about 10 a.m. today to conduct an immigration raid at the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant.
The ICE agents entered the Postville plant to execute a criminal search warrant for evidence relating to aggravated identity theft, fraudulent use of Social Security numbers and other crimes, said Tim Counts, a Midwest ICE spokesman.
Agents are also executing a civil search warrant for people illegally in the United States, he said.
Immigration officials told aides to U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley that they expect 600 to 700 arrests. About 1,000 to 1,050 people work at the plant, according to Iowa Workforce Development.
Chuck Larson, a truck driver for Agriprocessing, was in the plant when the agents arrived. “There has to be 100 of them,” he said of the agents.
Larson said the agents told workers to stay in place then separated them by asking those with identification to stand to the right and those with other papers, to stand to the left.
“There was plenty of hollering,” Larson said. “You couldn’t go anywhere.”
When asked who was separated, Larson said those standing in the group with other papers were all Hispanic.
ICE spokesman Harold Ort in Postville did not confirm or deny that anyone had been detained, but went on to say that the children of those detained would be cared for and that “their caregiver situation will be addressed.”
“They were asked multiple times if they have any sole-caregiver issues or any childcare issues,” Ort said.
He said the two helicopters circling the complex were there to provide EMT support and to watch out for the agents on the ground.
Jeff Schnerbach, a sub-contractor electrician with Viking Electric, said he was on break at 10 a.m. when “200 agents” stringed into the complex.
“They took our statements, asked us where we were from, asked for an ID and let us go,” Schnerbach.
Early scene in Postville
Earlier this morning, a helicopter hovered over the scene, and a number of agents formed a perimeter around the Agriprocessors facility. Vehicles from ICE and at least eight cars and vans from the Iowa State Patrol were at the plant. There were also reports of two moving vans at the scene, along with an ambulance and two black Chevrolet Suburbans.
Counts declined to confirm where people who are arrested will be detained. Federal officials have leased the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in Waterloo, but they declined to explain last week whether the property was being prepared for use as a detention center.
Aides to Braley, a Waterloo Democrat, said they have been told that “hundreds” of arrests are expected because the action is more of an “investigation” than an immigration raid, and specific individuals are being targeted for arrest as part of the investigation.
Jeff Giertz, a spokesman for Braley, said immigration officials left the impression that the Cattle Congress site will be used mainly for processing of suspects rather than any long-term detention.
Counts said that each person being arrested would be questioned by ICE and by Public Health Service medical professionals to determine if they have humanitarian issues, including child care giver or medical issues.
“Those interviews will aid ICE in determining whether people will be detained or conditionally released on humanitarian grounds, pending their immigration court appearance,” Counts said.
Counts described the events in Postville as a “single site operation.” He said he was not aware of any other immigration raids being conducted elsewhere today.
Postville Police Chief Michael Halse said he did not know anything about the raid until 10 a.m. today.
Iowa Department of Public Safety officials referred all questions to federal authorities. A news conference is scheduled at 2 p.m. today at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cedar Rapids.
Postville, on the border of Allamakee and Clayton counties, is a community of more than 2,500 people that includes natives of German and Norwegian heritage and newcomers who include Hasidic Jews from New York, plus immigrants from Mexico, Russian, Ukraine and many other countries.
The Agriprocessors plant, known as the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, is northeast Iowa’s largest employer.
About 200 Hasidic Jews arrived in Postville in 1987, when butcher Aaron Rubashkin of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood reopened a defunct meat-packing plant with his two sons, Sholom and Heshy, just outside the city limits. Business boomed at the plant, reviving the depressed economy while pitting the newcomers against the predominately Lutheran community.
A University of Iowa professor, Stephen Bloom, wrote a book, “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,” detailing what happened.
Workers and immigration advocates in Iowa began girding for an immigration raid last week after learning that federal authorities had leased Waterloo’s Cattle Congress fairgrounds. Federal officials declined to explain their plans last week, but advocates worried the fairgrounds would be used as a detention center. That’s what happened in December 2006, when federal agents took people apprehended in a raid at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Marshalltown to the Camp Dodge military base in Johnston.
The scene in Waterloo
In Waterloo, a helicopter cruised over the Cattle Congress fairgrounds about 12:45 p.m. as a group of about five reporters watched from a parking lot across the street from the main gate.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials in black uniforms were posted at the gate and referred all reporter questions to Tim Counts, the spokesman.
A few touring coach buses were parked inside the gates, along with several ICE vehicles.
Retired University of Northern Iowa professor Rosa Maria de Finlay approached the gate to offer her interpretation services, but she, too, was turned away by an agent.
De Finlay said she has stopped by Cattle Congress repeatedly today, checking the grounds for signs that people were being detained there. She said she saw no buses enter.
“I think the money we’re spending on all this is incredible. You and I will never know how much it costs. That money could be used for something else other than this crap, this nonsense,” she said.