Sunday will mark the fifth anniversary of one of the largest workplace immigration raids in United States history. In May 2008, over 1,000 Homeland Security agents in full SWAT gear, helicopters, and SUV descended on the small town of Postville, Iowa. Three hundred eighty nine undocumented workers were detained at Postville Agriprocessors, a kosher meat packing plant. Three hundred of the 389 workers served five month jail sentences before getting deported. Many did not have prior criminal convictions. In the days and months following, more than 1,000 individuals who were not caught in the initial raid, most of Guatemalan origin, left the small town of nearly 2,300. Their departure left Postville bare, devastated the local economy, and shuttered the meat packing plant. The cost of the raid totaled over $5 million. In the end, the raid has been viewed as a disastrous approach to undocumented immigration control.
In the years since, Postville has gone through a major cosmetic lift, changing out the Latino landscape for Palauan islanders who could legally work because of its US protectorate status, who were then replaced by Somalian immigrants. To the same extent, immigration raids have also gone through a makeover. Large-scale workplace immigration raids have subsided, with federal dollars no longer being “allocated for federal agents to apprehend immigrants at workplaces and in homes located far from the border,” said Steven Camarota to USAToday. Workplace raids have emerged from deploying heavily-armed officers to sending federal officials to audit businesses to verify the Social Security numbers of all their employees. A fiscally conservative and time-efficient way of replacing workplace raids, one of the aspects of the Senate bill would make E-verify mandatory, which would increase the number of identification audits on businesses. As it stands, businesses are fined up to $1,100 per worker and must fire any employees whose identities do not match up the records on file.
Under the Obama administration, small-scale deportations have increased to include 410,000 deported immigrants in 2012 and is on track to reach a total of two million deportations. Obama has placed a “smart enforcement” emphasis on detaining and prosecuting only the most serious offenders, leaving low-priority cases eligible for prosecutorial discretion. However, the current data on deportations shows that four percent of immigrant removals still fall outside the top ICE enforcement priority categories of convicted criminals, immigration fugitives, repeat immigration violators, and border removals. Within the past year 16,394 immigrants fell into the “other removable aliens” category, which includes low-priority cases.
The Postville raid serves as a reflection that while immigration raids have avoided the large-scale frightening tactics of five years ago, little has changed in the way that immigrants have been treated while they are detained. Anti-immigrant leaders in states like Arizona have taken on the approach to “intentionally [charge] undocumented workers with serious crimes so that they’ll be deported and ineligible to adjust their immigration status in the future.” Because identity theft is a felony crime in Arizona, many apprehended low-priority immigrants are thus ineligible for prosecutorial discretion. As a result of sabotaging immigrant applicants, those individuals now with a criminal record could be ineligible to qualify for a pathway to citizenship under the Senate bill.