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The Immigration Issue
Raid on a meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa
The front-page headline of the Star Tribune on June 29th hit me: “There’s something BAD in this town.” An orthodox Jew with beard and black hat shown from the back was pictured above the headline; and below, immigrant women and their children from central America. The story was about a raid by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, that processed kosher meat. The plant was owned and operated by a company called Agriprocessors, Inc. which had moved its operations from the New York area in 1987, presumably to reduce costs. Agriprocessors was owned by the Rubashkin family, orthodox Jews.
The federal agents had arrested 400 of the plant’s 900 workers, charging many of them with identity theft and possession of stolen Social Security cards. The immigrant workers, in turn, had quite a story to tell. One woman told strangers that “she came from California based on promises by Agriprocessors of free rent, food and a good job. Instead ... she found a filthy, expensive apartment and mandatory 14-hour days.” Court documents included “story after story of long hours, unsafe conditions, and wages as low as $5 an hour.”
A female worker recruited from a homeless shelter in Texas “said the company promised a free furnished apartment for a month. Instead, she was put in a four-bedroom house with ten men. ’Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been sexually approached’, she said.” This woman was fired after two days on the job when she asked for medications for mental illness at a company clinic.
The company had its apologists out on the streets of Postville telling people that the Rubashkin family had done many charitable works. A family friend “said the illegal workers used fake documents and the company followed the law in verifying paperwork. Most of the workers were happy to have the jobs and were paid and treated fairly. The Rubashkins ‘took a town that had balls of hay rolling in it and they built up a community of approximately 120 Jewish families ... (they) gave money to the city, to charity and recently sent food to flood victims.”
“ What happened,” said this man, “was when (Jews) came to town, they (the townspeople) looked at us like we’re Martians ... They didn’t understand the black coats, the white shirts, the beards, the black hats, and they needed to learn about us.”
An informant inside the plant, however, told federal agents that he had witnessed “plant managers hire and help workers with fake identity papers. Up to 76 percent of the workers did not have correct Social Security numbers ... The informant also reported seeing managers abuse workers, including hitting one with a meat hook. One manager also ran a scam in which illegal workers were coerced into buying cars from him.” There were also reports of “pollution violations, fights with labor unions trying to organize, OSHA violations and charges of animal abuse by PETA. This year, the Iowa Division of Labor Services fined the company $182,000 for 39 health violations.”
It seemed to me that mistrust of the company involved more than strange-looking garb. Agriprocessors was a particularly vicious, cynical employer, quick to spin its own version of the truth. The raid caused dismay in the Jewish community. In addition to the company apologists, there were Jewish groups that acknowledged the problem for their community and who were discussing such measures as “a certification program called Hekhsher Tzedek, much like fair trade agreements, which would ensure not only that kosher meat is prepared properly, but also that workers are treated fairly.” Some even called for a boycott of Agriprocessors products.
There the matter sat for a month as I mulled over the situation. It seemed just another raid on employers who hired illegal immigrants. I began to realize that company exploitation was a big part of the problem.
Then, almost exactly a month later, on July 28th, the Star Tribune ran another front-page story on the situation. The headline read: “Twin Cities Jews Join the Battle.” This story was about a massive rally - more than a thousand people strong- that had taken place the day before through the streets of Postville. Many of the marchers were out-of-town Jews, some from the Twin Cities. They were marching in solidarity with the Agriprocessors workers who were held in federal detention, along with allies in the Christian community. An inter-faith rally was held at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville, which had become a sanctuary for families of the arrested workers.
So this was a story about the “good people” from religious communities, Christian and Jewish, coming together to support a down-trodden group. Unfortunately, there were also “bad people”. The same “Statue of Liberty”, displayed by a pro-immigrant demonstrator on one side of the street, was also being exhibited on the other side by a woman, “painted green and dressed as the icon of American freedom, (who) said, ‘The statue says, 'Give me your poor and your tired.' It doesn’t say, 'Give me your illegal aliens.’”
Ah ha, there were bigots in the crowd. I assumed many of them were local Postville people. The newspaper article reported: “As the march turned onto the town’s main thoroughfare, it met the crowd that favors more immigration raids. Shouts of ‘Keep families together, no more raids!’ were met with ‘Go home!’ and ‘Take your kids with you!’ When two girls walked by with U.S. and Mexican flags, a man yelled, ‘Bring me that (Mexican) flag - I’ll burn that garbage.’” A generation or two earlier, he might have been a Klansman burning a cross.
Mingling with the crowd of pro-immigrant demonstrators was Getzel Rubashkin, the grandson of Agriprocessors’ founder, dressed in black. He was quoted: “The people who come here talk about justice. No one disagrees with that. We are on the same side of the issue. We don’t have a dog in this fight.” The Rubashkin grandson said that his father, the company’s former CEO, had no idea that many of its workers were illegal immigrants. “No one at this plant is against worker’ rights or wants to mistreat anybody,” he said.
A light bulb went off in my head. This was how politics had been practiced in America for at least half a century. It was the politics of righteous people fighting against bigots. The righteous were affluent Christians and Jews helping the less fortunate. The bigots were relatively uneducated small-town people. I saw the Postville saga as an amazing piece of political jujitsu. A month ago, the story was about how a kosher meatpacking plant in Iowa had mistreated its immigrant workers. Now it was about concerned citizens, including the grandson of the Agriprocessors’ founder, standing up for immigrant rights. The small-town “bigots”, it seems, never win. Unscrupulous corporations have mastered the game of spin.
To me, there was an obvious solution reflecting my own sense of “justice”. Employers such as Agriprocessors should be made to pay the cost of illegal immigration, not local taxpayers. While these employers were making huge profits by luring people to a town and paying low wages, the taxpayers had to educate the children of illegal-immigrant workers. They had to pay for the social safety net supporting low-income people - food stamps, welfare, etc. - and deal with the costs of delinquency.
Additionally, these small-town people were losing their culture and identity as hordes of people of diverse background came to their community to work at factories such as that owned by Agriprocessors. They were also competing for jobs. Why shouldn’t those people be angry about the situation? They were being labeled as bigots. Once stigmatized, they were being hit financially. That’s how the political game is played in America.
Germ of an idea for a compromise immigration proposal
The situation in Postville, Iowa, was the inspiration for my immigration proposal. Some issues needed to be resolved. Like many, I believed that the border between Mexico and the United States needed to be tightened. People cannot be allowed simply to walk across it without permission and become entitled to the privileges that we enjoy in this country, especially when others must pay.
A more difficult question was what to do about the people already here. Should they be rounded up and sent back to their country of origin or should there be an amnesty program? The first option seemed both inhumane and unenforceable. It was like the Fugitive Slave Act that precipitated the U.S. Civil War. The idea of police agents knocking on the door, rousting them out of their beds, sending them first to jail and then out of the country, while tearing families apart, did not fit the character of our nation. And yet, “amnesty”, or letting people keep the fruits of an illegal act, was also unfair. The illegal immigrants had to bear some penalty for knowingly breaking the law.
The Postville raid suggested a remedy. Make the employer of illegal immigrants - the Agriprocessors of this world - pay. Declare a truce in arresting undocumented workers but, at the same time, impose penalties on employers that would make it less likely that such workers would be hired. It would then become less attractive for people to sneak across the border because they would experience more difficulty in finding employment. If hiring the illegal immigrant became more expensive relative to hiring other workers, fewer employers would want to hire them. Thus the jobs magnet would weaken.
And so I saw my immigration proposal as a compromise. The illegal immigrants would get de facto permission to remain in the United States without fear of deportation. The U.S. natives would also get something. What might that be?
A legitimate complaint of the natives - those born and raised in Postville, for instance - was that local taxpayers would have to bear the social costs of illegal immigrants and their families when recruited by a firm such as Agriprocessors to move into the community to work for low wages. The cost of public-school education for the children was the main one but there were also others. Why not require the employer to pay those costs on the front end?
How might that be done? In my scheme, I saw the government calculate the difference between what local taxpayers pay to provide services to the immigrant families and what the immigrant workers pay in taxes. The excess in taxpayer-supported costs over tax revenues would be calculated on an individual basis per immigrant family per year. That number of dollars divided by the number of working hours in a year would give an hourly rate of taxpayer costs that should be added to the employer’s wage bill. I proposed that that number of dollars per hour become a surtax to the employer’s share of the FICA tax. It would be collected currently as the employee worked and then be remitted to local government as a reimbursement to the taxpayer for the additional social-service costs.
Such a system presupposed universal registration of persons who had entered the United States illegally and remained here. If deportation would not be a result, I saw no legitimate reason why people would not comply. If they did not and were detected, however, deportation would be mandatory. A reason for registration would be so that the government could collect information about individual families on which to base the surtax.
Another issue was that this scheme requires a total new type of tax. It requires detailed computation that can only be handled by computers. In that respect, it was like my proposal for an “employer-specific tariff” which would equalize labor-cost differentials in world trade. Maybe the world was technologically ready for this new approach.
I thought I was making a contribution to U.S. politics. The question of illegal immigration is extremely divisive. On one hand, we have Republicans in Congress (especially Rep. Tom Tancredo) representing the interests of native-born people like those presumably in Postville who resent the violation of U.S. borders and want corrective action. On the other hand, we have Democrats (and Republicans like Sen. John McCain and President Bush) who support an amnesty program to gain a political advantage. The fast-growing Hispanic community would become another building block in their Rainbow Coalition to ensure future electoral majorities.
The problem is that the issue had become personalized. Latino advocates see opponents of amnesty as ignorant and hateful “bigots” while anti-amnesty groups see the people who entered this country illegally as lawbreakers needing to be punished. The community was divided into two warring camps wishing to roll each other politically instead of seeking a compromise solution.
In the present political mode, the immigrant question can easily keep our nation divided for another half century or more. Why not make this issue a matter of matching financial benefits and costs? The employers of low-paid immigrant workers reap big profits. They should also bear the associated costs. Take hate out of the equation. I say: “No more wetbacks, no more bigots.” Wouldn’t that be an improvement to our politics? A compromise proposal of this sort also seemed appropriate for a candidate representing the Independence Party, politically positioned between the Democrats and Republicans.
I wrote up this scheme in the form of a proposal and posted it on my campaign website, linked to the front page. It was titled: “A Proposal to Deal with Illegal Immigration”. Before writing it, I googled “Minnesota illegal immigration” and was directed to a report delivered to the Governor of Minnesota in December 2005. This report gave me some data regarding immigrant costs in our state.
My idea was, of course, that a political campaign such as mine would provide a platform to make proposal of this sort. I could approach the media with greater legitimacy than as an ordinary citizen. Maybe my proposal would inspire a political debate on the subject. That assumption proved overly optimistic. But it did keep me going for a time.
Seeking feedback on this proposal
When the woman from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) called me about the group’s survey, I was glad to take the call. I had been wanting to air my proposal with both pro- and anti-amnesty groups. Here was a pro-amnesty one. We had a good, friendly discussion. The woman agreed that maybe it was time for the differing immigration groups to compromise.
When I asked for the names of other organizations, she suggested that I talk with the president of her group’s Minnesota-Dakotas chapter. I did call his Minneapolis office. This man referred me to several individuals, mainly lawyers or academics, who had an interest in this question. I mailed copies of my proposal to the two AILA officials and others who gave contact information, asking for feedback. It never came.
For anti-amnesty groups, I did a Google search. A highly ranked listing was that of the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington, D.C. Its regional representative was Susan Tully who lived in Viroqua, Wisconsin. When I called Tully, she was about to leave town for a conference. She asked me to mail her a copy of my proposal.
Two weeks later, we had a telephone conversation. Tully did not like my proposal because of its amnesty feature. Asked about deportation of illegal immigrants, she said she did not favor that approach either. Her group was focusing on enforcement of existing laws that made it illegal for employers knowingly to hire illegal immigrants. If there were effective enforcement, then jobs would dry up and the illegals would voluntarily leave the country. It was not unlike the approach that I was suggesting, though a bit harsher. I would make it legal to hire illegal immigrants provided that employers paid a surtax.
I also sought an opinion from two high-profile politicians. One was Tim Penny, a former Congressman who, other than Jesse Ventura, was the party’s best-known member. Penny agreed by email to look at my proposal. At length, he responded with a brief statement: “Bill - Read your paper. It tracks fairly closely with the Independence Party platform.” That was all. There were no comments or criticisms but at least my ideas were seen as being within the range of acceptability for our party.
The other was the Republican Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, recently passed over for the Vice Presidential slot by John McCain. He was known to be critical of illegal immigration. The Governor’s letter, dated September 9th, made no specific reference to my proposal but did mention some legislative initiatives that his office had made in this area. He also suggested that I contact my elected representatives in Congress. I was, of course, seeking to become one of them.
Keith Ellison’s forum on immigration reform
Four days later, I did actually contact my Congressman who was also my opponent in the Congressional race, Keith Ellison. I was on his campaign’s email list. I received an email message from the campaign manager, Larry Weiss, urging Ellison supporters to “ramp it up” and turn out voters to win the November election.
This email also announced that the Congressman would be hosting “a Forum on Immigration Reform” on Saturday, September 13th, between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. at the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street in Minneapolis, the same place where Michael Cavlan and I had had lunch. Also, on the following day, Sunday the 14th, Keith Ellison would take part in the Mexican Independence Day Parade. We should meet at 11:00 a.m. at the corner of Bloomington and Lake Streets, with the parade getting underway at noon.
I needed no better spies than this to learn what my opponent was doing. (We had not yet made contact during the campaign.) Also, it was timed perfectly to further my new-found interest in immigration questions. So I showed up at the forum and sat in the middle of the audience. Larry Weiss recognized me and so, perhaps, did Ellison. However, we did not speak to each other.
The meeting, which lasted about an hour, was mostly about how pro-immigrant groups could make themselves politically effective. They were asking for federal agents to stop the raids on immigrant workers and also for changes in the law that would allow them to obtain drivers licenses. Ellison was sympathetic, of course. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked Keith Ellison a three-part question, not designed to embarrass him but to elicit attitudes that might bear on my proposal. He gave straightforward answers. Yes, it was illegal under current law for employers to hire undocumented workers. He did not respond to my suggestion of imposing financial penalties on employers, perhaps because the point of my question was unclear.
After the meeting, I hung around waiting to talk with Ellison. He seemed to be trying to avoid me. At length, I introduced myself as one of his campaign opponents - Ellison said he already knew - and handed him a copy of my immigration proposal. If I expected a response, I never got one. I also tried to talk with some of the representatives of Hispanic groups. One said she would look at my proposal on the Internet and get back to me. She never did. That’s the way it was going with pro-amnesty groups. No one would respond to anything I tried to do.
Weiss’s email had, of course, also alerted me to the Mexican Independence Day Parade. I had not been invited to this parade and did not previously know about it. Miscalculating, I showed up at Bloomington and Lake at 11:30 p.m. The parade had already started. In fact, the marchers at the end of the parade had already left the corner. When I tried to jump in behind them, a parade official told me the parade was over. However, I was allowed to walk behind the last car.
So I did this, wearing a large, purple Mexican hat and carrying a placard which read: “Bill McGaughey for U.S. Congress - Independence Party - Can We Talk about Jobs?” Even if crowds were sparse by then, some onlookers made comments; but mostly I was ignored. I walked about 15 blocks west and Lake Street and then back again to my parked car. Looking back on it, my participation was rather pathetic.
I should mention that I also contacted two editors of community newspapers and discussed my immigration proposal with them. One was Ed Felien, editor of the Southside Pride, whom I had known casually for about ten years. The other was Alberto Monserrate, editor of the Latino newspaper, La Prensa, and proprietor of other media aimed at the Hispanic community. He and I had had a bitter exchange of emails in late 2006 when I was a campaign volunteer for Tammy Lee. He supported Keith Ellison.
Felien and I exchanged email messages over a period of several days in the last week of September. He was a former Minneapolis city council member with distinctly leftist views. His hang-up from my perspective was that he did not believe illegal immigrants were costing taxpayers more than what they contributed in taxes. In fact, he argued that between sales taxes, property taxes, and income-tax and FICA-tax withholdings for which they would never receive a refund or receive benefits, these workers were being financially cheated by society. I cited the report to the Governor of Minnesota that included a cost-and-benefit comparison showing the opposite, but this was not detailed enough. He challenged me to find more information.
Then a Congressional candidate, I did not have time for such research. The information may not even have existed. If illegal-immigrant workers did pay more taxes than the cost of services to them, then my proposed surtax would be zero. The argument was therefore moot. So the matter lay dormant until after the election when Ed Felien took me out to lunch - at the Midtown Global Market. He said he had hired someone on Craiglist to research the question of taxes paid by illegal-immigrant workers. He also told stories about Mao Zedong. I wish my wife had been there. She had lived through the period of Mao’s final years.
My exchange with Monserrate came after the November election. He had posted a message on the Minneapolis e-democracy forum which argued that Latino voters had played a decisive role in the election: Si se Pudo!!!! The Hispanic vote had gone overwhelmingly to Obama. La Prensa had endorsed Ellison and Al Franken. This seemed like boasting to me. (Or maybe Monserrate was simply trying to drum up future business for his newspaper. I had less problems with that.)
I responded: “Alberto Monserrate has presented Latino voters as a relatively unified voting bloc within a Civil Rights coalition that was instrumental in delivering votes to Obama, Franken, and Ellison. Political candidates and parties are therefore advised not to take stands that might offend this bloc of voters. Considering that Mr. Monserrate accused me of being a white racist when two years ago I supported Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee over Keith Ellison, it did not surprise me that his newspaper, La Prensa, endorsed Ellison this year. ...
It seems to me that the political strategy of Monserrate, and also of Keith Ellison, is to crush the white bigots - the anti-amnesty crowd - through the ballot box. With growing numbers of Hispanic voters, this may seem a promising strategy... I would remind people, however, that Barack Obama came to prominence as a national political figure by appealing for an end to political divisions based on race, ethnicity, and other such factors. The predominantly white caucus attendees in Iowa who gave Obama a critical boost during the presidential primary season likely responded to that unifying and hopeful message.”
Monserrate’s response was at first conciliatory. I responded in kind. I had, however, written that I respected the anti-amnesty people more than I did the pro-amnesty people because they, at least, were willing to discuss my “compromise” proposal (thinking of Susan Tully). I made the mistake of adding: “The same cannot be said for the pro-amnesty people - and that includes La Prensa.”
In rereading my email, I realized that, although I had sent La Prensa some materials about my campaign, I had not sent them a copy of the immigration proposal. So I apologized to Monserrate about this.
That opened a floodgate of accusations against me. Monserrate was mainly concerned about my statement that he had called me a “white racist” during the 2006 campaign. I had remembered a statement of that sort in one of his emails but could not cite the email because it was locked in an inoperable file on my old iMAC. I had been using Earthlink’s Webmail feature for months until I bought my new machine. I described to Monserrate the vitriolic message from him where I thought the statement appeared and gave a rough time frame.
I then received a reply stating that he, Monserrate, had looked through the entire email exchange with me during that period. “William the truth is I never called you a white racist isn't it?,” he wrote. “ I don't ever use that term. I checked our exchanges from then and I never used it. The truth is that you simply did not like my message and tried to shoot the messenger and his reputation to shoot the message.” He demanded a public apology. He added: “Please do not accuse me falsely publicly again. I like reading your posts. You add important diversity to the discussion. But now I doubt I'll see your writings in the same way.”
I responded by saying that I would issue a public apology if he sent me the email in question and I failed to find what I remembered. But I did remember something. So Monserrate sent me copies of several emails. The group did not include that particular message - an unforgettably angry message from two years earlier that went on at some length - he would recognize it. Without spending money for technical support to access the frozen emails on my old machine, however, I could not prove my point. Monserrate had said that he did not want to waste any more time on this argument. I said I agreed.
In spite of this unfortunate exchange, Monserrate did make a few comments about my immigration proposal. He wrote that the idea of putting an hourly surtax on work done by illegal-immigrant workers but not on work done by others “seems like discrimination to me. All employees should be treated equally.” He also disagreed with my argument that the immigration question should be settled by compromise rather than by telling the other side “that they are ‘bigots’ who will simply have to comply with disadvantageous laws once the Democratic juggernaut passes them with the help of Latino voters?”
Monserrate argued that a majority of voters supported both Obama’s election and comprehensive immigration reform. “The ballot box decided the issue. You're not against that are you?” Yes, I was arguing that a compromise solution would have a better lasting result. Both sides needed to win, or, at least, not lose. Post Obama, this is how such questions needed to be resolved.
A fortunate aspect of campaigning for political office is that the effort comes to an end. A person is forced to shift gears. Here, again, I becoming stuck in an argumentative mode. In many ways, I admired Alberto Monserrate - for instance, when he dug out needed information on the scandal involving Chris Stewart. But he also often rubbed me the wrong way. Monserrate and I may be alike in that regard, being stubbornly argumentative. It’s no use getting into discussions that turn into bitter arguments.
Additionally, Monserrate has influence in the Latino community as a newspaper publisher and owner of a radio station, I thought. So all I’m accomplishing here is making enemies in that fast-growing community. Obviously, my “compromise” proposal on immigration was going nowhere. Let it be. Time was running out on the election campaign and nothing had been solved.
The irony was that I have had a good experience with most of my tenants who were Hispanic. They are hard-working, family-oriented people who generally avoid criminal activity and pay their rent - not all, of course, but most. It is mainly with their political representatives and community leaders that I have problems. The main problem is that relations with the non-Hispanic or Anglo community are being forced into the Civil Rights mode that turns people into “bigots”.
This mentality has outlived its usefulness. Barack Obama realized that and seized the moment. We are all one nation, he said, not red or blue states, not black and white people. And I think he meant it. A slur against white people was a slur against his white mother and against the white grandparents who raised him. No white slave master had raped his ancestors.
I have also had experience with the personal dislocation that occurs when illegal immigrants are apprehended. Several years ago, I had a tenant named Vinnie who sometimes laid carpet for me. Vinnie was a young man from Ecuador who liked to party and drink. Unfortunately, he was making loud noises in his apartment unit at 4:00 a.m. one day. The tenant above him, who was an unofficial caretaker, called the police. When the Minneapolis police discovered Vinnie’s illegal status, they hauled him off to jail. Eventually he was deported.
I went down to the detention center in St. Paul, where he was being held, and gave him twenty dollars to buy snacks. But this action caused a hardship for everyone. No, I had not checked Vinnie’s immigration status; and, yes, I was benefiting financially by receiving rent payments and discounted carpet laying from him. Perhaps I, too, was being drawn into the web of illegality and guilt.
There was one final experience that I wish to mention. A person on the e-democracy forum pointed out to me that the Republican candidate’s website listed a campaign event on the coming Sunday, October 26th. It was to be a candidate debate between Keith Ellison and herself, Barb Davis White. The event, sponsored by Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, would be held at the Church of the Incarnation on Pillsbury Avenue in south Minneapolis. I learned the name of the organizer and called him. He said I should arrive an hour early. He and others involved in the forum would decide whether I could be included in the debate.
It turned out to be an enjoyable experience - only the second debate in our campaign featuring a live audience. While waiting, I was kept company by an engaging young man and woman, both teenagers, who plied me with political questions. The debate itself consisted of a series of questions - some asked by a panel of moderators, others by audience members - that covered the range of Congressional issues with emphasis on immigration questions, of course. I tried to summarize my proposal in the two minutes allowed. Each of the questions was asked in Spanish. Interpreters translated these questions and our answers. The only discordant note was that once, when I said “illegal immigrants”, the moderator commented that they did not use that phrase in the church.
The audience members and sponsors were both polite and curious about public policy. I was impressed with the seriousness with which the event was carried out. I did give a copy of my immigration proposal to the event organizer and, again, received no comments. However, this debate took place close to the time of the election.
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