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. ...
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.
But, this kind of corruption just hasn't been a big story with the press.