Social Justice for Undocumented Immigrants

November 2008

[1] Postville, Iowa, a rural town of about 2,200 located in the rolling hills of northeast Iowa, would appear to be an unlikely epicenter for a debate over immigration control and our treatment of undocumented immigrants. However, when on May 12, 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE—formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service) agents stormed into the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant—the largest in the nation—and detained 389 workers, it was thrust into the spotlight. This proved to be the largest immigration raid in the nation’s history.[1] A majority of those detained were from Guatemala, coupled with a sizeable contingent from Mexico. Among the charges leveled against these workers were felony violations for aggravated identity theft and the false use of Social Security numbers. Rather than being arrested and quickly deported, the workers faced serious prison time if convicted of these charges.


[2] Like many other small farming communities in the Midwest, Postville’s population had been declining for decades since World War II and business closures were common. This changed in the mid-1980s when a Brooklyn butcher and member of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community purchased a vacant meatpacking plant and reopened it as a kosher plant. A Hasidic community developed as several hundred former urbanites (many from Crown Heights in Brooklyn) settled in Postville, setting off what journalist Stephen Bloom has described as a “clash of cultures.”[2] At the same time, the plant’s owners hired workers at the plant chiefly from the ranks of Mexican and Central American immigrants, which further increased the community’s population base and added to its cultural diversity. While the Jewish community created a separate sphere of social life for itself, including a religious school, the Latino population sent their children to public schools and attended mass at St. Bridget’s, the local Catholic church. Although the cultural tensions were very real, many established residents of Postville—including the current mayor—were keenly aware of the fact that these newcomers had introduced new vitality into what had been a stagnant community.


[3] It is within this background that the ICE raid needs to be located. A report by a court-appointed interpreter, reinforced by additional evidence, raised serious questions about rights violations against the undocumented workers, leading to an editorial in the New York Times that accused the government of “abusing and terrorizing undocumented immigrant workers,” noting that “there is a profound difference between stealing people’s identities to rob them of property and money, and using false papers merely to get a job.”[3] This raises a question about ICE’s motives (they have since conducted a similar raid in Mississippi that resulted in even more arrests than the Postville case). The removal of all of the undocumented is a persistent demand of the extremist fringe of the anti-immigration movement, seen in the demands of such organizations as the Minute Men, the American Immigration Control Foundation, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. There is little evidence that such a goal is the objective of the federal government. Not only is it administratively and politically unfeasible to remove millions of people, but it would prove to be economically costly (a fact that is conveyed in humorous form in the film, “A Day Without Mexicans”).


[4] Two alternative explanations thus appear to be more convincing, and these are not necessarily either/or propositions. First, the agency might want to instill fear in the undocumented community nationwide in order to convince a significant number to make a voluntary decision to return home. There is, in fact, evidence to suggest that during the past year the number of undocumented immigrants has declined by 1.3 million.[4] Secondly, the raid may have been motivated by the administration’s desire to engage in symbolic politics, attempting to indicate to the right-wing of the Republican Party’s base that it was getting tough on undocumented immigrants and was committed to more stringent border controls. It is reasonable to assume that the administration did not want to go too far because another constituency within the ranks of the Republican Party is the business community that desires access to immigrant labor. Thus, the real question at present is whether the government has lost control of its borders, as critics such as Lou Dobbs would have it, or instead is content to allow somewhat porous borders to persist because it recognizes that reducing the number of immigrants—including the undocumented—would prove to be economically detrimental.


[5] How did this situation arise? As with all of the world’s advanced industrial nations, during the second half of the twentieth century, a new and major migratory movement from poor nations to wealthy ones took off, the consequence of major economic changes associated with the intensification of the global penetration of capitalism and from the 1980s forward with the triumph of neoliberal economic ideology and policies. Neoliberalism promoted “free trade,” which called for the breaking down of national barriers for goods and services. Global capitalism, in short, was to become unbounded. However, few were prepared to permit a parallel, unrestricted free movement of people across borders. But the demand for labor exceeded the capacity of these nations to meet it, given the demographic trend which resulted in aging populations among the native-born, shortages of various high-skilled workers, and a growing unwillingness of the native-born to engage in low-paying 3D work (dirty, dangerous, and difficult). The current migratory wave is the result of economic dislocations in the homeland brought about by the economic policies of powerful nations and such agencies as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund combined with the demand for labor in the advanced industrial nations. However, as sociologists have made clear, migratory waves cannot be turned off and on like a water tap. Thus, even when the demand for labor declines, the wave will continue for some time into the future due to the fact that migration involves networks linking place of origin and destination, and the networks themselves exert a pull on potential migrants.


[6] In such circumstances, as past history reveals, one of the consequences of mass migration is the emergence of anti-immigration movements. What makes the contemporary scene distinctive is that immigrants have more active supporters than they have had in the past. This was evident in Postville, when on July 27, 2008 around 1,000 people (including me) rallied in support of the arrested immigrants and their families. The bulk of those in attendance, besides immigrants, were members of three faith communities: Catholic, Jewish, and Lutheran. The march through the town was preceded by an ecumenical service at St. Bridget’s conducted in English, Hebrew, and Spanish, While part of the focus of the service and march was directed at the owners of Agriprocessors, for a number of news accounts had made it clear that they had been involved in serious labor violations in the plant, the federal government was also the target of criticism for what was viewed as its use of draconian tactics. The protesters called for an end to ICE raids, but more than that they called for comprehensive immigration reform that insured justice for workers and an approach to immigration that respected the integrity of the family. In his address at the service, Pastor Mark Anderson, the Assistant to the Bishop of the Northeastern Iowa Synod of the ELCA perhaps summed up the demands of the assembled best and most succinctly when he argued that we need to create a situation where it is no longer the case that one has to choose between obeying the law and promoting justice.


[7] But what would a just immigration policy look like? In fact, a review of the ELCA’s 1998 document, “A Message on Immigration,” reveals a statement that spells out in a fair amount of detail what justice for immigrants means.[5] The underlying grounding of the message is that Christians are called upon to welcome the stranger and to do so with recognition of a shared humanity. It argues for a commitment to policies that enhance rather than undermine human dignity. It specifies what this would mean for such issues as establishing options for citizenship, offering social benefits to immigrants, and formulating refugee and asylum policies. In addition, it offers a cogent critique of plans to construct a barrier along the US-Mexican border. It also addresses the central issue in the Postville case: “newcomers without legal status.” The message correctly contends that, “The existence of a permanent sub-group of people who live without recourse to effective legal protection opens the door for their massive abuse and exploitation and harms the common good.” In order to prevent this outcome, it calls for “feasible responses to this situation that offer flexible and humane ways for undocumented persons who have been in the country for a specified amount of time to be able to adjust their legal status.” This is, indeed, what is called for if we are going to arrive at a place where the law and justice work together rather than being at odds with each other. Unfortunately, given the current political climate, those feasible responses are more remote than they were a decade ago—as the most recent ill-fated legislative debates on “amnesty” for the undocumented attests.


[8] One of the small contingent of anti-immigration counter-protesters in Postville held a sign that read: “What Would Jesus Do? Obey the Law.” There is something fundamentally absurd about such a statement given Jesus’ antagonistic relationship to those in power who were responsible for establishing and enforcing “the law.” Mark Anderson has it right: the task of Christians is to do all in their power to change the law so that it promotes rather than impedes justice. In the meantime, it is our duty to embrace the stranger in our midst.






[1] “Iowa Lawsuit Filed Over Raid,” New York Times (May 17, 2008).

[2] Bloom, Stephen, Postville: Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. New York: Harcourt, 2000).

[3] “The Shame of Postville, Iowa,” New York Times (July 13, 2008).

[4] “Immigrant Population in Decline, Report Says,” New York Times (July 31, 2008).

[5] “A Message on Immigration,” Department for Studies, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1998.




© December 2008
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 8, Issue 12