It’s telling that last week’s mass immigration raid in Iowa, during which immigrant workers were rounded up and treated like cattle, was heralded by the whupping of federal helicopters hovering over the town and its meat-processing plant.

One of its warning signs was that the feds showed up a week before and blackened out the windows of the Cattle Congress facility to prepare it for holding large numbers of detainees.

As one of the locals put it:

"What’s that all about? You know, what does that sound like? That’s just creepy, just things that seem really unAmerican, that seem on the down low," Howard says. "No one should be treated this way. These aren’t drug runners. They’re not terrorists." Howard calls the raid "political maneuvering" to show people the Bush Administration is doing something on illegal immigration.

As Joshua Holland at AlterNet suggests, the feds’ behavior throughout, while "professional" enough, has raised the specter of law enforcement that is all about keeping workers in a state of fear, and leaving the employers who are manipulating them completely unscathed.

According to the Associated Press, an attorney who interviewed some of those swept up in the raid said that the company itself "obtained false identification for immigrant workers." But in the overwhelming majority of these raids — 98 percent, according to the Washington Post — the only people to pay any penalty are poor people trying to earn a substandard wage working in America’s growing unregulated economy. Meanwhile, ICE charged many of the detained with "identity theft" for those faked papers, effectively giving immigration hard-liners what Congress hasn’t granted them through the legislative process: serious criminal charges for what have always been misdemeanor immigration violations at most.

Most of all, it’s clear that the plant’s owners were in the business of seriously exploiting the illegal status of their workers — abusing them, underpaying them, exposing them to hazardous working conditions — and the raids actually had the effect of covering that up:

In this case, as in many others like it, many of the workers appear to have been seriously exploited. The AP reported that the plant’s management "improperly withheld money from employees’ paychecks for ‘immigration fees,’ didn’t allow workers to use the restroom during 10-hour shifts, physically abused workers and didn’t compensate them for overtime work."

According to MSNBC, workers at the plant were routinely started at $5 per hour for their first three or four months on the job and then raised to $6, still well below Iowa’s minimum wage of $7.25. Iowa Labor Commissioner David Neil confirmed to the Des Moines Register that Agriprocessors was being investigated by the state on suspicion of wage violations, paying people off the books and hiring underage workers. A copy of the federal warrant obtained by the Register described an incident in which "a supervisor covered the eyes of an employee with duct tape and struck him with a meat hook."

It’s unclear what the raids’ impact will be on the ongoing investigations into the company’s workplace violations. With hundreds of workers — and potential witnesses — carted away, Jill Cashen, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), asked: "how can justice ever be served on these exploitation issues?" Agriprocessor’s management must have been pleased with the timing of the raid. Not only did it put at least a crimp in the ongoing investigations of serious allegations of abuse by the company, it also derailed an effort by UFCW to organize the plants’ workers and give them a shot at bargaining with management for better working conditions.

According to the Boston Herald, the fine folks at Agriprocessors in fact were helping illegal immigrants with their illegal paperwork:

A federal informant who worked at Agriprocessors told officials about workers who appeared to be undocumented having trouble getting paid. … Other workers admitted to gaining employment using fraudulent documents. One worker claimed that he got a job without having any documents. When he received his first paycheck, the warrant application says, "it had another unknown person’s name on it. This check was then taken to another portion of the plant where it was cashed."

This strongly suggests that company officials were systematically helping undocumented people work at the plant.

While the arrested workers, particularly those who used fake IDs (which is nearly all of them) are looking forward to prison time and then deportation, the plant’s politically connected owners and managers are evidently facing no charges at all. But for ordinary folks in Postville, it isn’t just illegal immigrants who are feeling the weight of this kind of law enforcement — it has terrorized legal immigrants and longtime residents alike. And maybe that’s the point:

Still, the impression among many non-Latinos in Postville is that the federal government targeted the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Any discussion of the subject often begins with the phrase, “The law is the law, but …”

“We got raped and we got plundered and we got pillaged Monday. Everybody in this town ought to be angry,” business owner Lyle Opheim said.

chools Superintendent David Strudthoff said the raid has been enormously disruptive for local children. When the helicopters appeared and word spread of what was happening, some students started crying in their classrooms. A third of the elementary school’s 387 pupils were missing the day after, and about half of them were among the 400 women and children who sought sanctuary at St. Bridget’s.

Most have now returned to school, but 10 or so have already left permanently, and with the end of the school year looming, dozens of children whose parents face deportation are set to return to their native countries, including those who are U.S. citizens by virtue of being born here.

“These people have been here 15 years and they’re entwined in our families and in our community,” Mr. Strudthoff said. “When 10 per cent of the population is imprisoned, it brings a community to its knees.”

And there have been questions as well about how the detainees have been given their due process:

The hearings drew renewed criticism from advocates who contend that the federal government was rushing the immigrants through mass hearings. The setup suggests "that the government is more interested in getting people deported without hearings than in achieving justice," said Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

A local nun probably voiced the outrage best:

"I am also a United States citizen who grew up believing that this is a democratic country in which the dignity of all people is respected and their rights protected," she said Tuesday at a news conference here, surrounded by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"This is not the country I experienced this past week."

Thill, several times choking up with emotion, told of the shock and distress of immigrants who gathered at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church the day of the raid.

"Hundreds of families were torn apart by this raid," she said.

The mother in one family was released, while her husband was still detained, said Thill. Her children are upset and frightened. The mother has no income and cannot work or provide for her children, she said.

"The humanitarian impact of this raid is obvious to anyone in Postville," Thill said. "The economic impact will soon be evident."

Indeed. But this is what happens when we do what the right-wingers want us to do, to "enforce the laws that are on the books." The problem is that, as we’ve explained previously, these laws are so misbegotten and unworkable in the first place that travesties like this — installing a virtual police state in small-town America, terrorizing and suppressing workers in a way that lets employers exploit them without consequence — are inevitable.

And then, perhaps, we should contemplate what happens when these scenes are repeated in town after town, city after city, plant after plant.

David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. He also is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000.