Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Trial Begins for Agriprocessors Executive

The first trial against Sholom Rubashkin, the former top executive of Agriprocessors, started yesterday – sixteen months after the raid and almost to the day of the one-year anniversary of when 270 of those who toiled in the factory completed their own sentences. Unlike Rubashkin's trial, the workers’ " trials" did not involve high scrutiny, scores of witnesses, not even juries... For them, "justice" was swift. The world did not get to hear about their children, their loved ones and friends who if asked would have spoken of their openness, their commitment to family, their basic hope of survival and a better future for their children...

I just spoke this morning with Luis, one of the 36 former workers at Agriprocessors who, after serving a 5-month sentence and an additional month in detention, was not sent back to his home country as he had expected. Rather, he was brought back here to Northeast Iowa as a material witness against his former employer. Luis had signed his guilty plea primarily because he understood it would be his quickest way back home to his loved ones,his wife and young child, whose birth first motivated him to go al otro lado in hopes of a better future. One of the many things Luis and those who share in his legal limbo didn't realize about the pleas they signed is that they included a "cooperation clause" that have resulted in their having no choice but to remain away from their families at the mercy and whim of bureaucracies and legal processes.

In our brief conversation this morning, Luis updated me on his wife's health. Luis' wife – who like him is in her early twenties – is very ill back home in Mexico. She is scheduled for a major operation in December, and Luis is still hoping that he would be allowed to return home to be there with her for her surgery. Word is he will not be able to travel... Depending on what happens with Rubashkin's trial, who knows when he will be allowed to return to his family.... Otto, another one of the material witnesses, knows what Luis is going through. His wife had surgery in Guatemala last week, and he could do nothing but wait by the phone for news...

Every morning Luis, Otto and the rest of the "material witnesses" wake up early and head out to work. Since they are required to remain in the country awaiting their participation as witnesses in the trial against Rubashkin, they  have been given temporary work permits. Many of them retrace the same steps they took on May 12, 2008 – the day of the raid – as they are back working at Agriprocessors (now under new ownership and functioning at a limited capacity under the name Agri Star Meat and Poultry LLC). They are glad for the work, as work is what they have known all of their lives. It is that work – and the fact that when they were detained sixteen months ago it was AT WORK – that fills their days and fuels their resistance against the barrage of assumptions many make about them because of their former immigration status...

Following this trial, which focuses on accusations of fraud and is expected to last about five weeks, Sholom will face a second trial related to immigration violations. It is in that second trial that Luis, Otto and the others will be called on as material witnesses. Even after that, legal battles will remain related to the hiring of minors (22 of those detained in the plant on the day of the raid were minors, hired not only without proper immigration documentation, but against state labor laws that prohibit minors from working on the floor of a meatpacking plant and working the kinds of hours these kids were working...). 

It is easy to tire of the complexity and pain of this situation. Yet, it is emblematic of much larger issues among us. Our economic decisions and technological advances – which have so greatly benefited many of us – bring about complex global markets. Labor supply and demand is a part of it, but our immigration policies have not reflected our economic decisions and technological advances.

Today I will pray for Luis and his wife, for Otto and his wife, for their families and the countless others whose lives have been so devastated... I will pray for Sholom and his family as well. I will pray that our awareness of their lives will motivate us to call for and to enact change.

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