News: Stolen Away

ICE raid chills immigrant community

Joe Lamb

Jim Tobin of the Catholic Conference of Ohio speaks at a press conference after federal immigration agents, aided by local police, arrested 161 undocumented workers at a plant in Fairfield.

A raid last week that led to the arrest of 161 illegal immigrants at a chicken packaging factory in Fairfield might fan emotions and make for good headlines but does little to address the problem of undocumented foreign workers, according an immigrant advocacy group.

The Coalition for the Rights and Dignity of Immigrants — also known by its Spanish acronym, CODEDI — criticizes the use of raids as causing the unnecessary breakup of families, adding that they are no replacement for a substantive federal policy for dealing with the issue in an even-handed manner.

When an undocumented worker is deported, it can take up to six years for that person to be reunited with his or her spouse and children left in this country due to the bureaucracy and procedures now in place, says the Rev. Manuel Viera, a Catholic priest who works with the burgeoning Hispanic community in Butler County.

"Families have been divided and people are living in fear," he says. "The people that are targeted are the good ones, the ones who are working and supporting their families. It's not the criminals and the ones causing problems in society."

Filling the demand
Although the raids don't have a long-term impact on stopping the use of undocumented workers, CODEDI says, they create conditions that make it worse for them. The practice results in illegal immigrants living further underground — and that makes it easier for American companies to exploit them.

"Only comprehensive immigration reform can fix the broken system," says Sylvia Castellanos, a CODEDI spokeswoman. "The (federal) raids are terrorizing workers in the factories, their communities and their homes."

Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted an Aug. 28 raid at the Koch Foods Co. poultry processing facility on Port Union Road, joined by local law enforcement. Overall, more than 300 local and federal officers participated.

After the raid, federal immigration agents announced that about 40 of the people arrested would be given a humanitarian release and not be immediately deported. The releases typically are granted when the detainee is the sole caregiver for a family or there are health issues involved.

The federal agency says the raid followed a two-year investigation of the Chicago-based company that determined it routinely used such workers to fill factory jobs. Koch representatives in Chicago have declined comment, but a supervisor at the Fairfield facility says he has tried to monitor workers to ensure they are here legally.

Monty Lobb, Koch's human resources director at the Fairfield facility, defended its hiring record to WCPO (Channel 9) shortly after the raid and claimed he got no help from federal officials in trying to crackdown on the problem beforehand.

"Nobody will work with you, and I've been doing it on my own, cleaning up, making sure that everybody is legal," Lobb told WCPO. "Now is everybody legal? Probably not, but by the documentation I have to have to do it, I terminated two people (Aug. 27) when I found out their papers were inaccurate."

In fact, 20 of the 161 workers arrested are facing federal charges for falsifying their identities — but that leaves open the question of how the 141 other immigrants were hired if they didn't have the appropriate paperwork to give Koch.

Under the Bush administration, workplace raids have become more common. The raids have resulted in a dramatic increase in use of non-criminal arrest of illegal immigrants, known as administrative detention. Non-criminal arrests have jumped from 445 in 2003 to 3,667 in 2006, and immigration agents are on pace to exceed that number this year.

'A nation more divided'
There are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and immigrant advocacy groups say they provide an integral part of the nation's economy.

"Our economy and our communities depend on them," says Jim Tobin of the Catholic Conference of Ohio. "They bus our dishes, pick our vegetables, clean our offices and homes and care for our children, among other jobs. We cannot wish them away or simply send them away. For practical, economic and moral reasons, we have to find ways to bring these people out of the shadows, to protect them from exploitation and to regularize their status for their sake and ours."

Castellanos makes a similar point.

"People come to this country because there is work," she says. "This country needs the labor force."

Many immigrant advocacy groups support policy reform that would allow procedures for workers in the United States to eventually gain citizenship without leaving their families.

"I think we all agree that there should be some sort of earned legalization so people who are already here can adjust their status," one advocate says.

Supporters of the crackdown on illegal immigrants, including Butler County Sheriff Rick Jones, say people who willingly and knowingly violate the law by coming to the United States should expect to face enforcement.

Regardless, immigrant advocacy groups counter that the raids are a no-win situation for both sides of the debate. Crackdown supporters should stop using the issue for partisan political gain, while opponents should take more seriously concerns about protecting borders and increasing security, Tobin says.

"After these raids, we're a nation more divided and more confused," he says. "The immigrant status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable. Anger is no substitute for wisdom, and attacks are no substitute for dialogue." ©

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