Sunday, July 27, 2008

Immigration News: Inquiry Hears Horror Tales of Injustice

Inquiry hears horror tales of injustice

By Gloria Rubac
Houston
Published Jul 24, 2008 11:40 PM

“I’ve been stunned. I’ve been shocked. I’ve been deeply moved by what I have heard today,” said U.S. Congressperson John Conyers after hundreds of people crammed into Houston’s City Hall on July 18 to give testimony at an Inquiry of Crime, Justice and Race in Harris County. Conyers is chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

The inquiry was hosted by Texas Congressperson Sheila Jackson-Lee and organized by her staff, along with the Coalition for Justice. Preparations for the hearing began last winter after revelations of shocking racist and sexist e-mails sent by the Harris County District Attorney.

The hearing attracted community leaders, grassroots activists, and dozens and dozens of victims of the criminal justice system. When the City Council chambers could no longer hold the crowd, an overflow room was set up with television monitors for those who kept arriving.

Joining Conyers and Jackson-Lee on the panel were Texas state legislators and Houston City Council members.

Speaker after speaker condemned the criminal justice system for being systemically racist and uninterested in true justice. Applause broke out many times and signs were hoisted that read, “Houston, we have a problem!” and “Time to clean house!”

Jose Saavedra cried as he told the panel how his mother died in the county jail after being arrested for a minor traffic ticket. She was diabetic and was refused the insulin she needed, he said. She had also injured her knee in the jail and was denied treatment for that. “There is a problem at the jail,” he stressed. “We could not get any medical care for my mother. She told us they were not caring for her, but we couldn’t get the jail to do anything. We are young and we have lost our mother. And over a ticket?”

Long-time immigrant rights advocate Maria Jimenez spoke about a raid in June by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a local rag factory. Over a dozen people who had been arrested in the raid stood up with her in the chambers. The workers, mostly women, attended the hearing with their children.

Brothers Sean Ibarra and Erik Ibarra told how Harris County deputies stormed into their home six years ago as Sean was taking photos of deputies’ misconduct toward his neighbors. “They beat my brother and almost beat my mother, pulled guns on my mother and brother, stole evidence, stole my film, and filed false charges on us and arrested us. We tried to have the sheriff investigate these deputies and he did nothing. Six years later, they still work for the sheriff. They have not even been investigated or disciplined,” said Sean Ibarra.

The brothers recently won a $1.7 million lawsuit against Harris County.

Stephanie Storey was engaged to Hernando Torres, one of two men shot and killed by vigilante Joe Horn in November of 2007. “I want justice for these men. They shouldn’t have been burglarizing the house, but they never got to face a jury. Joe Horn was their judge, jury and executioner. Horn took the law into his own hands. This is not right. I want this case to be presented to another grand jury so they can investigate the case,” she told the panel.

Invited speakers included Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, the first African American D.A. in the state of Texas. “We run our office in Dallas with the goal of seeking justice, not convictions,” he told the inquiry panel.

Over 20 innocent people have been released from prison since Watkins took office in January of 2007. Many had served 15 to 25 years and were exonerated after DNA evidence was examined. Watkins has told prisoners convicted in Dallas County that, if they claim innocence, his office will investigate. He has allowed the Innocence Project of Texas to have space in the D.A.’s office and its volunteers work with assistant district attornies to look into cases of innocence.

Many people left the three-hour hearing frustrated because they had not been called to testify. Dozens turned in written reports of abuse because time expired before they could speak. Relatives of those locked in prison or executed submitted information on behalf of their loved ones.

The mothers of Lonnie Johnson, executed on July 24, 2007, and Joseph Nichols, executed on March 7, 2007, submitted information of prosecutorial misconduct in the cases of their sons, who they both said were innocent. Regina Schmahl Guidry submitted documentation on the wrongful conviction of her husband, Howard Guidry, who is a prisoners’ rights activist on Texas death row.

The Judiciary Committee staff will review statements and submitted documents to determine if a full congressional hearing by the committee should be held, Conyers said after the hearing.
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After Iowa Raid, Immigrants Fuel Labor Inquiries

By JULIA PRESTON
New York Times

POSTVILLE, Iowa — When federal immigration agents raided the kosher meatpacking plant here in May and rounded up 389 illegal immigrants, they found more than 20 under-age workers, some as young as 13.

Now those young immigrants have begun to tell investigators about their jobs. Some said they worked shifts of 12 hours or more, wielding razor-edged knives and saws to slice freshly killed beef. Some worked through the night, sometimes six nights a week.

One, a Guatemalan named Elmer L. who said he was 16 when he started working on the plant’s killing floors, said he worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week. In an affidavit, he said he was constantly tired and did not have time to do anything but work and sleep. “I was very sad,” he said, “and I felt like I was a slave.”

At first, labor officials said the raid had disrupted federal and state investigations already under way at Agriprocessors Inc., the nation’s largest kosher plant. The raid has drawn criticism for what some see as harsh tactics against the immigrants, with little action taken against their employers.

But in the aftermath of the arrests, labor investigators have reaped a bounty of new evidence from the testimony of illegal immigrants, teenagers and adults, who were caught in the raid. In formal declarations, immigrants have described pervasive labor violations at the plant, testimony that could result in criminal charges for Agriprocessors executives, labor law experts said.

Out of work and facing deportation proceedings, many of the immigrants say they now have nothing to lose in speaking up about the conditions in the plant. They have told investigators that they were routinely put to work without safety training and were forced to work long shifts without overtime or rest time. Under-age workers said their bosses knew how young they were.

Because of the dangers of the work, it is illegal in Iowa for a company to employ anyone under 18 on the floor of a meatpacking plant.

In a statement, Agriprocessors said it did not employ workers under 18, and would fire any under-age worker found to have presented false documents to obtain work.

To investigate the child labor accusations, the federal Labor Department has joined with the Iowa Division of Labor Services in cooperation with the state attorney general’s office, officials for the three agencies said.

Sonia Parras Konrad, an immigration lawyer in private practice in Des Moines, is representing many of the young workers. She said she had so far identified 27 workers under 18 who were employed in the packing areas of the plant, most of them illegal immigrants from Guatemala, including some who were not arrested in the raid.

“Some of these boys don’t even shave,” Ms. Parras Konrad said. “They’re goofy. They’re teenagers.”

At a meeting here Saturday, three members of the House Hispanic Caucus — including its chairman, Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois — heard seven immigrant minors describe working in the Agriprocessors plant.

Iowa labor officials said they rarely encounter child labor cases even though the state has many meatpacking plants.

“We don’t normally have many under-age folks working in our state,” said Gail Sheridan-Lucht, a lawyer for the state labor department, who said she could not comment specifically on the Agriprocessors investigation.

Other investigations are also under way. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is examining accusations of sexual harassment of women at the plant. Lawyers for the immigrants are preparing a suit under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act for wage and hour violations.

Federal justice and immigration officials, speaking on Thursday at a hearing in Washington of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said their investigations were continuing. A federal grand jury in Cedar Rapids is hearing evidence.

While federal prosecutors are primarily focusing on immigration charges, they may also be looking into labor violations. Search warrant documents filed in court before the raid, which was May 12, cited a report by an anonymous immigrant who was sent to work in the plant by immigration authorities as an undercover informant. The immigrant saw “a rabbi who was calling employees derogatory names and throwing meat at employees.” Jewish managers oversee the slaughtering and processing of meat at Agriprocessors to ensure kosher standards.

In another episode, the informant said a floor supervisor had blindfolded an immigrant with duct tape. “The floor supervisor then took one of the meat hooks and hit the Guatemalan with it,” the informant said, adding that the blow did not cause “serious injuries.”

So far, 297 illegal immigrants from the May raid have been convicted of document fraud and other criminal charges, and most were sentenced to five months in prison, after which they will be deported.

A spokesman for Agriprocessors, Menachem Lubinsky, said the company could not comment on an active investigation.

“The company has two objectives in mind: to restore its production to meet the demands of the kosher food market and to be in full compliance with all local, state and federal laws,” Mr. Lubinsky said. Reports of labor violations at the plant “remain allegations only, that no agency has charged the company with,” he said.

The Agriprocessors kosher plant here has been owned and operated since 1987 by Aaron Rubashkin and his family. His son Sholom was the plant’s top manager until he was removed by his father in May after the raid. The plant’s products are distributed across the country under brands including Aaron’s Best and Aaron’s Choice.

Most of the young immigrants were hired at Agriprocessors after they presented false Social Security cards or other documents saying they were older than they were.

But in an interview here, Elmer L. said he had told floor supervisors that he was under 18. He asked that his last name not be published on advice of his lawyer, Ms. Parras Konrad, because he is a minor in deportation proceedings.

“They asked me how old I was,” Elmer L. said. “They could see that sometimes I could not keep up with the work.”

Elmer L. said that he regularly worked 17 hours a day at the plant and was paid $7.25 an hour. He said he was not paid overtime consistently.

“My work was very hard, because they didn’t give me my breaks, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep,” he said. “They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained.”

Elmer L. said that he was clearing cow innards from the slaughter floor last Aug. 26 when a supervisor he described as a rabbi began yelling at him, then kicked him from behind. The blow caused a freshly-sharpened knife to fly up and cut his elbow.

He was sent to a hospital where doctors closed the laceration with eight stitches. But he said that when he returned, his elbow still stinging, to ask for some time off, his supervisor ordered him back to work.

The next day, as he was lifting a cow’s tongue, the stitches ruptured, Elmer L. said, and the wound bled again. He said he was given a bandage at the plant and sent back to work. The incident is confirmed in a worker’s injury report filed on Aug. 31, 2007, by Agriprocessors with the Iowa labor department.

Gilda O., a Guatemalan who said she was 16, said she worked the night shift plucking chickens. She said she was working to help her parents pay off debts.

Another Guatemalan, Joel R., who gave his age as 15, said he dropped out of school in Postville after the eighth grade and took a job at Agriprocessors because his mother became ill. He said he worked from 5.30 p.m. to 6.30 a.m. in a section called “quality control,” a job he described as relatively easy that he got because he speaks English.

But he said he and other workers were under constant pressure from supervisors. “They yell at us when we don’t hurry up, when we don’t work fast enough for them,” said Joel R. He and Gilda O. did not want their last names published because they are illegal immigrants and they were not arrested in the raid.

Most of the young immigrants have been released from detention but remain in deportation proceedings. Ms. Parras Konrad said she will ask immigration authorities to grant them special four-year temporary visas, known as U visas, which are offered to immigrants who assist in law enforcement investigations. Iowa labor officials are considering supporting some of those requests, Ms. Sheridan-Lucht said.

Agriprocessors executives said they had begun an overhaul of hiring and labor practices, starting with hiring a compliance officer, James G. Martin, a former United States attorney in Missouri. In an interview, Mr. Martin said the company had contracted with an outside firm, the Jacobson Staffing Company, to handle its hiring, and new safety officers, including one former federal work safety inspector.

Mark Lauritsen, a vice president for the International Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has tried to organize the plant, said he remained skeptical. “They are the poster child for how a rogue company can exploit a broken immigration system,” Mr. Lauritsen said.

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