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Eastern Iowa Hispanic community fears more raids

Eastern Iowa Hispanic community fears more raids

6:17 AM

With rumors flying and fears that last week"s immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, may be only the start of more of the same, the Hispanic community in the Quad-Cities is gearing up to protect itself.

Last Sunday, after the 11 a.m. Mass at St. Mary"s Catholic Church in Davenport, church deacon Julian Gutierrez passed out literature telling the parish"s largely Hispanic congregation what their rights are if they should face questioning by federal authorities about their immigration status.

Olga Sanchez of Moline is helping to organize a similar distribution effort as the Mexican Consulate visits Rock IslandCounty in early June to allow Mexican nationals to apply for passports and identification documents.

And Quad-Cities Interfaith has been lining up attorneys and interpreters and urging undocumented immigrants to fill out forms naming a lawyer to represent them in the event that a similar raid takes place in the region.

All of the action comes in the wake of the largest workplace immigration raid in Iowa"s history at a kosher livestock slaughtering operation in Postville on May 12.

"I was on the radio after the raid, and I got 125 calls," Sanchez said of a Spanish-language program on St.AmbroseUniversity"s KALA. "When you get that many calls, you know people are fearful. Many of them wanted to know what they could do to help in Postville, but a lot wanted to know if ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is coming here."

The notion isn"t far-fetched, some say. Federal immigration officials have periodically made arrests in the region over the past decade.

1997 raid remembered

A 1997 raid at the former IBP Inc. meat processing plant in Joslin, Ill., now owned by Tyson Foods, in which more than 140 undocumented Mexicans were rounded up, still sends shivers through many in the area. At the time, the way federal immigration authorities handled those caught up in the raid drew loud protests.

"Women were not allowed to go to the bathroom," said Stella Schneekloth, with Project NOW in Rock Island, who worked with families at the time. "It was abusive. People were shackled and paraded out. Some were held outside for hours with nothing to drink. Many were held for hours with no information about them. We all have rights."

The handling of the raid brought together the area"s Hispanic community and others who demanded changes in the way such operations are carried out, Schneekloth said.

There are at least four large meat-processing plants and many smaller ones within an hour"s drive of the Quad-Cities. Immigration authorities target such operations because that is where large concentrations of undocumented immigrants are likely to work, Sanchez said.

Some also accuse large meat processors of actively recruiting undocumented workers and turning a blind eye to suspicious documents that workers provide. An affidavit filed by federal authorities in the Postville case alleged that company officials overlooked suspect documents, did not certify forms required to be filled out by all workers hired, did not verify employment documents and employed workers without proper documents.

Tim Counts, spokesman for ICE in St. Paul, Minn., said the agency does not target specific industries. Its operations go "where the evidence leads us." The agency also routinely audits the employment verification forms that companies are required to certify after workers have filled them out.

"It"s a common misperception by some that we target one industry over another," Counts said. "Our agents don"t patrol a beat. We don"t conduct business by throwing a dart at a board."

Meat processors say they comply with the law. Patt Lilly, of St. Joseph, Mo., based Triumph Foods, said the company uses a federal Internet-based system that allows it to determine who is eligible to work in the country and another federal database that allows it to compare photos of applicants with those who have permission to work in the United States.

The company, which plans to open a plant in East Moline in 2010 that will employ 2,400 workers, has also been audited twice in the past two-and-a-half years by federal immigration authorities. The audits compare federally required employment verification forms to see if Social Security numbers and other information is valid, Lilly said.

"We do everything possible and use every tool available to us assure that we are following the law," Lilly said.

Tyson outlines policy

A summary of Tyson"s policies provided by company spokesman Gary Mickelson, the owner of plants in Joslin, Ill., and Columbus Junction, Iowa, says it has "zero tolerance for employing people who are not authorized to work in the U.S."

Since 1998, Tyson has used federal systems offered by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to verify information provided by applicants and to determine who is eligible to work in the U.S.

Pronouncements by ICE that it does not target specific industries and companies" claims of diligence in screening workers aside, Loxi Hopkins of Quad-Cities Interfaith said much of the panic about potential raids centers on the plants.

"We hear rumors every day about Joslin or Columbus Junction," said Hopkins, who traveled to Postville over the weekend. "People see a stranger, and they go into a panic. Even those with documentation, some of them are afraid they will be hauled in because they have brown skin."

She has gotten phone calls from people who are terrified that the Joslin plant is a likely target, Hopkins said. It is impossible to say who is documented and who isn"t at the plant, so "all we can do is wait and see what happens." She noted that ICE has rented space at the fairgrounds in Waterloo through the end of May, a move that makes many in the area nervous.

Fierce debate in recent years over the issue of illegal immigration has whipped up race hatred toward immigrant people, said Ernest Rodriguez, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, in Davenport.

"Misinformation about undocumented people stirs people up in the Quad-Cities," Rodriguez said. "When some of us read about it, we start to wonder, what is going to be our future here."

Hispanic communities throughout the region should take steps to protect themselves from potential abuses if undocumented members are rounded up by immigration authorities, said Claudia Fabian, of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Fabian said few communities outside of the largest cities have adequate organization to react effectively in the event of an enforcement action by immigration authorities. Most cobble together resources and help after arrests have already been made and panic has set in among immigrant populations.

"This is in reaction to the increasing number of raids we have been seeing and we think will continue," Fabian said. "There are a number of communities in Illinois and Iowa where there are undocumented people. If we know it, ICE knows it, too."


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