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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Immigrant raid halted in 2000 on election fear, ex-agent says

By Tony Leys
Des Moines Register
Aug. 6, 2011

Federal authorities could have spared Postville a great deal of upheaval if they had gone ahead with a planned 2000 immigration raid there instead of waiting nearly eight years to deal with a blatant case of illegal hiring, a retired federal agent says.

Estela Biesemeyer said last week that she and other immigration agents were poised to raid the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in late summer 2000, but their bosses canceled the action because of fears it might affect the presidential election.

Agency administrators were concerned about political blow-back from the raid, because they had heard the plant's owners were friends with U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, she said. Lieberman was the Democrats' vice presidential candidate that year.

The result of the cancellation, she said, was that the kosher meatpacking plant was allowed to expand dramatically, hiring hundreds more illegal immigrants. By the time authorities launched a huge raid there in 2008, the plant was Postville's dominant economic support, and its ensuing bankruptcy threw the town into a tailspin.

Rumors have long swirled that immigration officials knew about the plant's illegal work force but put off action for years. Confirmation came this summer in "Train to Nowhere," a book about immigration written by former Des Moines Register reporter Colleen Krantz.

Biesemeyer's former boss told Krantz about the 2000 raid being canceled abruptly, though his recollection of the exact timing and motive differs from Biesemeyer's.

Biesemeyer was the supervising agent in Des Moines for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its successor, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She retired in 2008, a few months after scores of federal agents charged into the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant and arrested nearly 400 workers in what was then the largest such raid in U.S. history.

Most of the arrested workers were Guatemalans or Mexicans, who served five months in prison before being deported. Hundreds more workers who avoided the raid fled town. The incident made national waves, and local leaders said it devastated the area's economy.

Biesemeyer, who lives in Indianola, said she was in charge of organizing the 2000 raid. Agents had gathered from around the country and search warrants were ready to go when the action was canceled the day before it was to happen, she said. "I was shocked that at the last minute they scrubbed it."

If the raid had gone through as planned, it probably would have caused much less disruption than the 2008 raid, because Agriprocessors was a much smaller operation than it would become, Biesemeyer said. She said agents in 2000 expected to arrest about 100 Agriprocessors workers, most of whom were from eastern Europe.

The agency was well aware that most of the plant's workers were illegal immigrants, she said, but for some reason, the problem was allowed to fester and grow for nearly eight more years after the canceled raid. "We could have curbed some of the goings-on that were happening there," she said.

She saw no indication that Lieberman asked anyone to scrub the raid. But she said her supervisors were concerned that the raid could affect the election, and they didn't want the agency to get involved in a political mess. She said she never understood why they didn't resume the plan after the election was over.

Immigration agencies were reorganized in 2003, with most of the workplace enforcement duties transferred to the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE, said last week that he couldn't comment on "outrageous statements" Biesemeyer might make as a private citizen. He said he doubted any records from the 2000 incident still existed, because they involved the defunct INS. "When federal agencies go away, they really go away," he said.

A spokeswoman for Lieberman said the senator never intervened in the matter, and she said his staff doubts he ever had contact with the Rubashkin family, which owned Agriprocessors.

Alonzo Martinez, a retired immigration agent who was Biesemeyer's boss, said last week that he was mystified by the cancellation of the 2000 raid. Martinez disputed Biesemeyer's recollection that he told her the raid was being canceled because of concerns about Lieberman, though he said he recalls higher-ups mentioning the senator's name during discussions of the planned raid.

Martinez also said his recollection is that the raid was supposed to be in early November, possibly on Election Day, not in late summer. He said immigration agents planned to raid both Agriprocessors and a nearby turkey processing plant, which later burned and went out of business.

Some observers have speculated that Agriprocessors was able to operate for years with a blatantly illegal work force because it was in a relatively remote area and was "off the radar screen." Martinez chuckled at that theory. "It was always on the radar screen," he said.

The Rev. Steve Brackett, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Postville, agreed with Biesemeyer that a 2000 raid would have caused less disruption and pain. He generally dislikes workplace immigration raids, because he contends they shatter families without addressing underlying immigration problems. But, he said, if federal authorities wanted to deal with the Postville situation, they shouldn't have let it go on for years.

"Because nothing was done sooner, it allowed the business plan of the Rubashkins to continue down a line that was unsustainable," Brackett said.

Sholom Rubashkin, who ran the plant, is serving a 27-year prison sentence on federal fraud convictions. After the 2008 raid, Agriprocessors went into bankruptcy and briefly closed. It then was sold to a Montreal businessman, who reopened it under the name Agri-Star.

Federal prosecutors in Cedar Rapids, who presumably would have helped draw up search warrants for the 2000 raid, declined to comment on the new revelations.