Meat plant, Iowa town reeling from raid

waterloo, iowa | In a makeshift courthouse at a cattle exhibition center here, Angela Noemi Lastor-Gomez appeared before a federal magistrate judge on charges that she had used false documents to gain employment at the nearby Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.

The smell of stale cigarette smoke hung in the air as Lastor-Gomez, shackled at the hands and waist, with the laces removed from her white sneakers, entered a guilty plea May 19 before Judge Jon Stewart Scoles.

It was over in minutes.

With federal agents leading her, Lastor-Gomez shuffled to another makeshift court for sentencing.

The chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Linda Reade, told Lastor-Gomez through an interpreter that the charges against her carry a potential penalty of up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. But under an agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Lastor-Gomez was given five years’ probation and sent back to her native Guatemala.

Lastor-Gomez was among the first eight workers to be sentenced in connection with last week’s federal immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, about 75 miles northeast of Waterloo. The other seven received identical sentences.

Authorities describe the raid, which netted 389 illegal workers, as the largest federal workplace immigration raid in U.S. history. It was so large that the government had to rent out the exhibition center, which initially served as a holding pen and now as a federal courthouse.

Throughout May 19, nearly 70 more detainees pleaded guilty to fraud charges in exchange for five-month jail sentences followed by deportation, the Des Moines Register reported.

Some detained last week were released almost immediately on humanitarian grounds to care for children. Under an agreement with prosecutors, a larger number were released a few days later because no criminal charges were pending.

The remainder — the bulk from Mexico and Guatemala — are still in federal custody facing charges related to misusing Social Security numbers and faking their identities in employment documents.

A court spokesman said he expected the hearings to be completed by May 22.

The raid has wrought havoc for Agriprocessors, which produces more than half the country’s kosher beef and 40 percent of its kosher chicken, mostly under the labels Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s. The company has scrambled to replace its workforce, importing laborers from across the country or busing them in daily from around the state.

“I see new faces all the time,” said a red-bearded Chassidic Jew, who said he was a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, at the plant.

One of those new faces is Dan Keller, 41, a single father who received a call last week from an employment agency saying Agriprocessors was hiring. A former machine operator at Tyson Foods in Waterloo, Keller now operates a Cryovac for Agriprocessors, sucking the air out of packages of deli foods and other ready-to-eat products.

Each morning at around 5 a.m., Keller boards a coach for the hour-and-a-half ride to Postville. He spends eight hours vacuum-sealing bags of meat before boarding the bus back to Waterloo.

Keller is paid $8 an hour for his work — less than the $12.20 he was paid as a unionized worker at Tyson, but more than the $5 an hour Agriprocessors is alleged to have paid some of its illegal workers.

According to Keller, after taxes and child support payments are deducted, he walks away with just $39 for an 11-hour day. But he’s not complaining. The bus is comfortable and outfitted with televisions, and Agriprocessors even provided lunch the first day.

Workers such as Keller have allowed Agriprocessors to continue to function, though several people with connections to the plant say it is operating at a fraction of its usual capacity. Keller says his department normally employs 104 people. The day he arrived, there were four. Now, with the additional labor, the number is up to 34.

“They’re not up to speed yet at all,” Keller said. “They’re just trying to survive.”

Some kosher butchers worry that production slowdowns at the plant will lead to a shortage of kosher meat and poultry, and a resultant price increase.

Albert Zadeh, the owner of Pico Glatt in Los Angeles, says he is already feeling the effects of the work slowdown.

“If you order five cases of meat, you might get two cases,” he said.

Yuval Atias, the owner of Oakland Kosher Foods, said he expected to be “short on chickens this week.” He hoped to compensate by ordering more from Empire Kosher, the nation’s second-largest producer of kosher poultry.

Kosher industry promoter Menachem Lubinsky, the organizer of the annual KosherFest trade show in New York City, predicted that any shortfall will be short-lived. Even if Agriprocessors shut downs tomorrow, he said, other kosher entrepreneurs would be ready to step in.

Lubinsky, who does consulting work for Agriprocessors, said that most of what the company has on the market isn’t coming from Postville but from some of its smaller North American plants or South American operation.

“This is a company that has many resources,” he said. “I don’t see a crisis.”

There may, however, be a crisis of a different kind looming.

The Conservative movement, which condemned Agriprocessors last week as bringing “shame upon the entire Jewish community,” may call for some kind of limited boycott.

There is “talk of it,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Association.

The reaction in the Orthodox world is much more muted.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division — the main kosher certifier of the Chasidic-owned Agriprocessors — refers reporters to the O.U. policy of leaving work conditions, environmentalism and animal welfare in the hands of the appropriate state and federal agencies.

The O.U.’s mandate is to ensure that the meat is kosher according to Jewish law, he said.

Genack said, however, that if a company were convicted of a felony, the O.U. would withdraw its kosher certification. Agriprocessors and its officials have not been charged with any crime, and say they are cooperating with the government’s investigation.

For its part, Agriprocessors has had little to say publicly. A statement issued last week said the company was cooperating in the federal investigation and expressed sympathy for the hardships endured by its former employees. The company has not responded to other allegations of drug use and sexual abuse at the meat plant.

As much trouble as the raid has generated for Agriprocessors, it pales in comparison to what the residents of Postville are experiencing.

The raid has decimated the local Spanish-speaking population, which went underground in the days afterward. Children were absent from school, friends mysteriously disappeared and many sought refuge in one of Postville’s three churches.

“This is such a disaster,” said David Vasquez, the campus pastor at Luther College in nearby Decorah.

A native of Guatemala, Vasquez came to Postville the day of the raid to help the families of the detainees. A week later, he’s still at it.

“We tried to get a listing of who was missing, you know, because we didn’t know if they were taken, if people were hiding, what happened,” Vasquez said. “It felt like some of the images you see after Katrina, where people are just lists on the walls.”

JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.