WATERLOO, Iowa (JTA) – 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, the laces removed from her white sneakers, entered a guilty plea Monday before Judge Jon Stewart Scoles.
It was over in minutes.
With federal agents leading her, Lastor-Gomez waddled from Scoles’ courtroom – housed in a ballroom with a pink neon sign out front, across the grounds of the National Cattle Congress – 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 would be given five years probation and sent back to her native Guatemala.
Lastor-Gomez’s federally appointed attorney, Jane Kelly, told Reade that her client wanted to return home, having only come to the United States to work and support her family. The judge then asked Lastor-Gomez if she wanted to address the court.
“I, Angela Lastor-Gomez, want to thank you, thank you for not treating me badly,” she began in Spanish, her voice cracking and the tears beginning to flow.
Lastor-Gomez then asked to be returned to Guatemala. Her family is there waiting for her, she said. Finally, she asked for God’s blessings.
Reade then sentenced her to five years probation and remanded her to the custody of U.S. marshals.
“God bless you,” Lastor-Gomez said as she was led from the room.
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, some 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 Monday, 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, some 306 immigrant laborers – the bulk from Mexico and Guatemala – are still in federal custody facing charges related to the misuse of Social Security numbers and faking their identities in employment documents.
A court spokesman told JTA he expected the hearings to be complete by Thursday night.
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 Chasid, who said he was a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, at the plant.
One of those new faces is Dan Keller, 41, an unemployed 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 Cry-o-vac for Agriprocessors, sucking the air out of packages of deli foods and other ready-to-eat products.
Each morning at about 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 – “or product, as you’re supposed to call it” – before boarding the bus back to Waterloo.
Keller is paid $8 an hour for his troubles – 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.
“So far it’s been awesome,” Keller said. “I think they’re treating us really, really well. They’re just glad to have us at this point.”
Workers like 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.”
Founded by Aaron Rubashkin, a butcher from Brooklyn and a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Agriprocessors has attracted hundreds of Orthodox Jews to this rural pocket of northeast Iowa in the past two decades.
The company first gained national attention in 2000 with the publication of the book “Postville,” which described the tensions between the company and the local community. Since then, Agriprocessors has come under fire over its slaughter methods and labor practices, as well as health and safety violations.
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.
The owner of Sabor Latino, a Spanish grocery and restaurant in downtown Postville, says his business fell by half since the raid. On Sunday, a sign advertised an all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet – $3.95 for kids, $6.95 for adults. But only one diner was in the restaurant in late afternoon, and he passed out at his table after ordering.
“They’re hiding,” the owner said of his missing patrons.
On Monday evening, St. Bridget’s Catholic Church remained a hive of activity. Two representatives from the disaster relief unit of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had come down from Chicago, and a number of immigrant workers, union organizers and others had descended on Postville.
Donated foodstuffs sat on a table in the corner as a clutch of aid workers and Hispanic residents scurried about. A color-coded chart in Spanish held information on the various jails around the state where workers were being held.
“This is such a disaster, man,” said David Vasquez, the campus pastor at Luther College in nearby Decorah.
A native of Guatemala himself, 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 and pictures of people missing. It felt that way because we couldn’t find out where they were.”
A red-haired woman in a pink shirt approached Vasquez for help contacting her brother-in-law. The man had been detained in the raid, and authorities were telling her he wouldn’t have access to a telephone for more than a week, by which time the hearings would be finished.
“What are they trying to accomplish with this?” Vasquez asked. “Shutting down towns that are thriving?”
Aid workers say the attention has shifted from immediate humanitarian relief to providing legal assistance. Some residents have still not been able to locate family members, while others are worried that their friends or relatives will sign plea agreements they do not fully understand.
Under the eight plea agreements approved by the judge Monday morning, defendants waived their right to appeal.
The uncertainty has spread beyond the Hispanic community. Gabay Menhel, a Lubavitcher who runs a property management company in Postville, hung a sign outside his office Tuesday offering a month’s free rent to lure new tenants.
Menhel said he owns 130 units in Postville. Of the 30 he has checked, 20 were empty on Monday. He said no one had taken him up on his special offer.
In Menhel’s view, Agriprocessors is innocent of wrongdoing. From a drawer he pulled a photocopy of a tenant’s permanent resident card, the same documentation he had likely produced to secure a job at the packing house. Menhel said the man is now in federal custody.
Speaking of Agriprocessors, Menhel said, “If anything in the world, they’re the victim.”
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. A press inquiry at the plant Monday afternoon was met with a referral to a public relations agency.
Jeff Abbas, who runs Postville’s radio station, worried about the impact of mass deportations on the town.
“We want to keep these folks here,” he said. “They’ve been a vibrant part of the community for a long time. We don’t want to lose that.”
“If anything happens to Agra,” he added, “if it doesn’t bounce back, if they close it, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”