For the first time in a two-year federal crackdown on the use of illegal aliens in the meatpacking industry, a senior executive has been arrested and charged with a crime.
Since December 2006, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has raided plants for at least four companies, arresting over 2,000 workers, according to the agency. Most of those arrested – almost entirely low-skilled, hourly workers – have been deported, and many faced criminal charges.
Thursday's arrest of Sholom Rubashkin, vice president of Agriprocessors, Inc., was the first time a senior-level employee of a raided meat or poultry company has faced federal charges stemming from the raids.
The arrest was applauded by the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, who had been trying to organize workers at Agriprocessors and other meat and poultry companies despite the raids.
"We have believed these raids have been attention-grabbing efforts that took aim at workers," said UFCW's Scott Frotman. "The people who were exploiting them were never prosecuted."
ICE agents arrested a UFCW official in July 2007 in connection with a raid on another meatpacking plant, according to the agency. The official was convicted of harboring illegal aliens in May and was sentenced to one year in prison.
Rubashkin, son of Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin, faces three felony counts relating to widespread document fraud and identity theft, part of what prosecutors say was a conspiracy to provide fake papers to his illegal workers. Rubashkin faces a minimum two years in prison if convicted, according to prosecutors. Rubashkin was arraigned Thursday, and released after posting $1 million bond and surrendering his passport.
In a statement released Thursday, a lawyer for Aaron Rubashkin called the arrest "wholly unnecessary and gratuitous," and accused federal prosecutors of having "a vendetta" against the company. Agriprocessors' lawyers are slated to meet with Justice Department officials, alleged attorney Nathan Lewin, who said Sholom Rubashkin and the company "are confident that, when all the facts are known. . . they will be vindicated."
Agriprocessors calls itself the largest kosher meat processor in the country. A recent article said the family-owned company sees $10 billion in sales of kosher and non-kosher meat and poultry.
The charges against Sholom Rubashkin stem from the raid on Agriprocessors' Postville, Iowa, plant in May, arresting 389 of the operation's 800 workers, mostly on charges relating to working using stolen social security numbers or other identification.
In an affadvit justifying the raid, officials said they had collected allegations of rampant malfeasance within the plant: a working methamphetamine lab, tax fraud, physical and verbal abuse of employees and other intimidation.
"That's all false. Agri[processing] has denied that. All those allegations are false," attorney Lewin told ABC News Thursday.
Last month, Iowa's Attorney General charged the company, Sholom and Aaron Rubashkin, and three managers with 9,311 misdemeanor labor violations. The company had 32 illegal immigrant children working at the plant, the complaint charged, including seven who were fifteen or younger. The Iowa officials said that the child employees handled dangerous equipment and were exposed to hazardous chemicals.
The company has vehemently denied fault in the matter. A company spokesman told the Associated Press that the children themselves were to blame, for lying about their ages when they applied for jobs at the plant.
Since October 2006, ICE has made nearly 6,000 worksite arrests for immigration and criminal violations. Slightly more than 200 of those arrested have been supervisors or higher, according to agency statistics. ICE referred inquiries about Thursday's arrest to the U.S. Attorney's office in Iowa which is handling the prosecution.