By Rubén Rosario
Updated: 05/12/2009 11:51:41 PM CDT
Warning: The following column is rated 'R' for righteous. People younger than 17 — but especially closed-minded nativists, bigots and those folks with absolutely no sense of global history or diverse life experiences — must be accompanied by a mature adult before reading this.
Church bells rang Tuesday. Shofars — ram's horns blown to signify a call to action in the Jewish tradition — were heard coast to coast, from Malibu to Mendota Heights to Maine.
The demonstrations, in addition to a multitude of solidarity marches and prayer and candlelight vigils here and elsewhere, commemorated the massive federal immigration raid a year ago this week at the Agriprocessors Inc. kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa.
Almost 400 workers, many of them undocumented workers from Guatemala and Mexico who were longtime residents of the northeastern Iowa community, were scooped up in a SWAT-like action replete with military-style helicopters.
Most of the workers served at least five months in prison and ultimately were deported after initially being charged with aggravated identity theft — a prosecutorial tool rejected last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. And that unanimous ruling was as stunning and crystal clear as an in-your-face LeBron James slam-dunk.
The plant's well-heeled Orthodox Jewish owners and its supervisors and underlings were charged, indicted, prosecuted or are still facing trial on employment, workplace safety and child labor violations.
The raid punched a hole in the small town's economy and financial future. Agriprocessors, which declared bankruptcy and virtually closed shop six months after the raid, was the town's major employer.
Several other businesses closed in the wake of the raid. Home vacancy rates surged after the loss of about 20 percent of the town's population, some 2,300 in July 2007.
The town's revenue base dipped to the point that the city council unsuccessfully sought to declare Postville a federal disaster zone.
A weekly food pantry giveaway still draws lines reminiscent of the Depression era.
"I don't think anyone will ever look back and say it was a good thing,'' Marilyn Olson, a coordinator for the Postville Recovery Coalition, said of the raid in a Waterloo, Iowa, newspaper interview. "This is a community that is deeply hurt and grieving."
COMING TO GRIPS
These raids are pretty much like slapping a Band-Aid on a heart attack. But we've relied on them until the recent change in presidential administrations because our leaders — regardless of party — lack the cojones to cut through the partisan politics and come up with a better way.
In the meantime, it's been the interfaith community of America that has seized the moral leadership and higher ground on this issue.
That's why I attended an interfaith service on the Postville raid, held Tuesday morning at the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights.
Rabbi Morris Allen, a longtime Twin Cities resident and religious leader, has garnered a national if controversial name by spearheading "Hekhsher Tzedek," or ethical seal.
Allen and many supporters believe ethical standards such as respecting worker rights should serve as a required supplement to the traditional kosher handling of meats, a practice pretty much corrupted by the aftermath of the raid at Agriprocessors.
"Judaism, absent ritual or ethic, is not a complete spiritual journey," Allen said. "It's unconscionable that we in the Jewish community were complicit in allowing this kind of behavior to continue, where the food we are obligated to eat was being produced on the backs of 15- and 16-year-old kids whose safety was endangered. This is not who we are as a people."
The Rev. Jose Santiago of Holy Rosary Church in South Minneapolis, a guest at Tuesday's service, underlined how the raid and other daily actions little known to the public needlessly tear families apart.
He peppered the audience with example upon example of discriminatory practices thrust upon members of his congregation — from ethnic profiling to demanding more marriage documentation than legally required by suburban city records clerks "who take it upon themselves to be above the law."
He cited the July 14, 2008, beating death of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old married father of two, by a band of assailants in the small Pennsylvania town of Shenandoah. Two culprits, who cursed Ramirez's ethnicity during the incident, were acquitted of murder charges in April and found guilty of simple assault — a verdict Santiago noted was cheered by the defendants' families and friends in the courtroom.
"We need to not allow these things to happen, whether it's in our back yard or within our nation because they affect people who have simply come here to raise their families and children," he said.
Before blowing the shofar to end the service, Allen read excerpts from a letter sent to President Barack Obama this week by Pedro Arturo Lopez Vega, a 12-year-old Postville resident affected by the raid.
Pedro's mother was among those workers arrested and deported after serving a five-month prison term based on the charges disallowed by the nation's highest court.
"I don't want anybody to suffer the way I did because it is very painful when they take away the one person you can always trust and count on," Pedro wrote in the May 6 letter.
He requested that Obama, whose administration has pretty much slapped a moratorium on such raids pending a Department of Homeland Security review, allow his deported mother to at least return to Postville to attend his graduation from eighth grade in two weeks.
"I can not repay you with money but I assure you that I will do my best and always help people in need," Pedro wrote in conclusion.
Allen then read an excerpt from the Torah that notes that "a stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as of one of your own citizens, you shall love them as yourself as you were strangers in the land."
Then he blew the horn, a sound hopefully heard loud and clear Tuesday in Washington, D.C., and all corridors of righteous justice.
Rubén Rosario can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5454.
# To read congressional testimony on the raid in Postville, go to judiciary.house.gov/hearings/hear_072408.html.