Postville: A Town Disrupted by ICE

Gabrielle Hamel, December 2018

The Postville Raid occurred on May 12, 2008 under the George W. Bush Administration. In this raid, almost four hundred immigrants, who were using false identity papers, were arrested by ICE officers while working at Agriprocessors, Inc., a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. [1] The events that occurred in Postville have many human rights and legal implications. One huge problem with the raid and subsequent detainments and deportations was the lack of representation and legal processing in these cases. Almost all of the immigrants who were taken into custody were jailed and deported without a trial or proper legal action. [2] The lack of appropriate legal action destroyed the lives of countless people and their families, and the aftermath still affects citizens of Postville, the people who were deported, and their families today.

Speaking about the immigrants arrested during the raid, lawyer Allison L McCarthy points out, “Each of these individuals was present and working in the United States because of an inherent human desire to establish a better life.” McCarthy also argues that the “immigration raid in Postville, Iowa marks a gross failure in government enforcement of international labor standards for immigrant workers in the United States.” [3] The way that the immigrant workers were treated throughout the entire process of arresting, detaining, jailing, and deporting them, was not even close to humane. One example of this is where they were placed for detainment immediately after their arrests: “the immigrants were brought from the slaughterhouse to the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa, a “facility normally used to show livestock … that served as a temporary detention facility and makeshift courthouse in the aftermath of the raid.”” [4] Forcing this large group of people into an area meant for the sale of cattle just shows how poorly planned and inhumanely executed the procedure for their arrests was.

Even before the raid, these workers were treated inhumanely by their bosses. “On November 21, 2008, federal prosecutors indicted the former CEO, three company managers, and a human resources employee from Agriprocessors with twelve counts of labor, fraud, and immigration-related offenses.” [5] The Iowa Attorney General’s office, at this time, also alleged that the higher-ups at Agriprocessors Inc. knowingly permitted minors to use dangerous power equipment and chemicals, as well as work longer hours than legally allowed. They also alleged that these supervisors failed to pay many workers for overtime, encouraged applicants to use forged documents, paid workers below minimum wage, and even physically abused workers. [6] Some of these supervisors were brought to justice. For example, Martin De La Rosa-Loera, a former Agriprocessors supervisor, was sentenced to “twenty-three months in federal prison for aiding and abetting in “harboring illegal aliens,” and for encouraging plant employees to acquire fraudulent employment authorization documents.” [7] Sholom Rubashkin, who was the Chief Executive of Agriprocessors, was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison. However, Rubashkin only served eight. His sentence was commuted by President Trump in 2017. [8]

Nonetheless, many of the company’s other supervisors were never brought to justice. The government also failed the immigrant workers in many other ways. For the most part, ICE refused to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Labor as they tried to target Agriprocessors owners and management with countless labor violations. However, as Mark Lauristen, International Vice President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said, the ICE raid “disrupted a separate U.S. Labor Department investigation into alleged child labor law violations and other infractions.” This led to the raid being overly displayed as an immigration issue rather than an important human rights problem by the public. [9]

At the same time, Agriprocessor workers were grossly underrepresented legally. This is partially due to the defense counsel working under a judicially mandated one-week deadline. This deadline limited the counsels’ capacity to adjudicate whether or not any of their clients were eligible to claim immigration relief. According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association:

“ [D]efense counsel were forced to recommend acceptance of a uniform
plea agreement in seven (7) days without sufficient time to assess
the case facts and forms of relief under the immigration law or
expose their clients to significant jail time; and, mass hearings
were conducted at which CJA defense counsel were called upon to
represent 10 defendants at a time in a single, brief, proceeding,
with some called on to do so on multiple occasions for multiple
groups of defendants.” [10]

This procedure has a name. Often referred to as “fast tracking”, it’s considered “efficient” processing of immigrant workers by ICE, but viewed as inhumane treatment of immigrants by many in the world of social justice. As Postville Community Schools Superintendent, David Strudthoff said, the event can be compared to “a natural disaster–only this one [was] man made.” [11] This “fast tracking” system lead almost all of the immigrants to a plea bargain, that unbeknownst to many, would permanently prevent them from re-entering the U.S. — and possibly from ever seeing family members again. [12] An example of this separation comes from Jorge and Maribel, who are separated from their daughter Jeidy. The couple lives in Guatemala with their other children, while their daughter, who was American-born, is studying and living in Postville with family friends. She is currently ten years old and in the fourth grade. She hasn’t seen her parents in four years. [13] When her family took the dangerous journey to the United States, they imagined a better future for themselves as a unit, not a broken family. This story, unfortunately, is not unique. Another person affected by the raid was Pedro Lopez Vega. He was in seventh grade at the time of the raid, when his mother was arrested. Without her income, his family often went without food and running water. They also lived in a perpetual state of fear, as his dad also worked at the plant and was an undocumented immigrant. His dad was not at work the day of the raid, but the fear of ICE arresting him in the near future persisted for Pedro and his family. Pedro’s mother still lives in Mexico, away from him and the rest of her family and will never be allowed to re-enter into the United States. [14] Many students and young-adults in Postville, are living without their parents and other family members, many of whom are forbidden from ever entering the U.S. again. [15]

A few fared slightly better and were allowed to stay in the United States. This group includes twenty-eight women who were released from detention because they were the sole-caregivers of their children. However, as of 2010, these women were still being tracked by ICE through ankle bracelets containing GPS tracking. [16] None of the 389 immigrants arrested in the 2008 raid, or their families and friends, nor any citizen of Postville, left unscathed.

Some, however, are unsympathetic to the plights of these people. On July 24, 2008, Steve King, a Congressional Representative from Iowa and Ranking member on the Subcommittee of Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law argued in support of ICE and the raid concluding that because the immigrants were in the country illegally, they cannot be victims of the system that persecuted them:

“When an illegal immigrant gets a job in this country using the identification documents or Social Security number of another person, it is a crime, and the other person is the victim of that crime…. each defendant was provided a criminal defense attorney, and it was up to those defense attorneys to ensure due process…. For far too many years, employers have gotten the message that they can hire illegal immigrant workers with few or no consequences… if they chose to violate the law, they are subject to prosecution.” [17]

King saw this case as a way to set a precedent for future immigration laws, rather than considering the actual people involved in the case. However, others at the trial were there to defend real people, like Jorge, Maribel, Jeidy and Pedro, whose lives were ravaged by the raid. Zoe Lofgren, a Representative in Congress from the State of California, and Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law also spoke, likening the events that took place after the raid in Waterloo, Iowa to a cattle auction, saying that the immigrants weren’t given due process but instead were ushered in-and-out as quickly as possible:

“Seventeen defendants to one lawyer, group hearing, script telling lawyers what to say in court, limited time for lawyers to meet defendants even without the language barriers the lawyers faced. Kind of like a cattle auction. The goal seems to have been that government would look tough on illegal immigration. But did our government follow the law, follow the Constitution and give meaningful due process?” [18]

Lofgren also points out that the raid likely interfered with ongoing investigations into labor-law violations, which included allegations of child labor and physical abuse. At the same time, she pointed out that, “Many of the workers apparently had no idea what a Social Security number or card even was. It may have been the employer tagging them with the number so it could hire them.”  She ends by stating that justice surely wasn’t served to these immigrants who came here seeking a better life and were not given the due process given to them by the Constitution: “In this country our Constitution guarantees that a poor person of any race, of any ethnicity, whether here legally or not, has a right to due process and to be represented by a lawyer when the government tries to prosecute and put her in jail. And that representation is not a formality. It is a meaningful right that includes the appropriate amount of time and space for the tools needed to conduct substantive and qualitative representation.” [19] Despite Lofgren’s efforts, many of the victims of the raid were never treated justly.

Although justice was not reached through this case for many of the victims of the Postville Raid, the efforts of lawyers and prosecutors were not in vain. A similar raid took place just months later in August 2008. In this raid, more than 350 workers were arrested. However, in this case, the majority of people arrested were given civil deportation hearings instead of felony charges like those arrested in Postville were. This was taken to be a sign of retreat on immigration strategy by the Bush Administration, and was a win in the world of immigration rights. [20]  If there hadn’t been such a backlash after the events in Postville, it is thought that the immigrants arrested in this subsequent raid would have been treated much worse than they were. Although almost nothing good came out of the Postville Raid, we can be thankful that it caused others to be treated more humanely.


[1] McCarthy, Allison L. “The May 12, 2008 Postville, Iowa immigration raid: a human rights perspective.” Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, Winter 2010, p. 293+. General OneFile, Accessed 4 Oct. 2018.


[3] McCarthy, Allison L. “The May 12, 2008 Postville, Iowa immigration raid: a human rights perspective.” Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, Winter 2010, p. 293+. General OneFile, Accessed 4 Oct. 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Blank, Pat. “Remembering the Postville Raid 10 Years Later.” Iowa Public Radio, BBC Newshour, 10 May 2018,

[9]  McCarthy, Allison L. “The May 12, 2008 Postville, Iowa immigration raid: a human rights perspective.” Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, Winter 2010, p. 293+. General OneFile, Accessed 4 Oct. 2018.

[10] Ibid.  

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Noticias, Univision. “America First: The Legacy of an Immigration Raid.” YouTube, Univision Noticias, 20 July 2018,

[14] Staff, Marketplace. “How an Immigration Raid Threw a Small Iowa Town into Economic Crisis.” Marketplace, Marketplace, 3 Aug. 2017[16] McCarthy, Allison L. “The May 12, 2008 Postville, Iowa

[15] Immigration raid: a human rights perspective.” Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, Winter 2010, p. 293+. General OneFile, Accessed 4 Oct. 2018.

[16] ,  Noticias, Univision. “America First: The Legacy of an Immigration Raid.” YouTube, Univision Noticias, 20 July 2018,

[17] States., United. “Immigration Raids : Postville and beyond : Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International … 4.J 89/1:110-198.” HathiTrust, 24 July 2008,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid

[20] Nossiter, Adam. “Hundreds of Workers Held in Immigration Raid.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Aug. 2008,

Further Readings:

Noticias, Univision. “Postville: How the Largest Immigration Raid in Recent U.S. History Devastated an Entire Town in Iowa.” YouTube, YouTube, 12 May 2018,

Immigration Enforcement. “Fiscal Year 2017 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report.” ICE, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 13 Dec. 2017, 

Crowder, Courtney, and MacKenzie Elmer. “Postville Raid Anniversary: A Timeline of Events in One of America’s Largest Illegal Immigration Campaigns.” Des Moines Register, The Des Moines Register, 11 May 2018, 

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