Rush: Privilege, Not Justice — The Freeing of Sholom Rubashkin (Part One)


The Agriprocessors plant. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Nicholas Rush

This article is part of a two-part series. Read the second part here.


In such a divided country ⁠— with an even more divided Congress ⁠— it is hard to take issue with bipartisan consensus. Such consensus came over the commuting of the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, owner of Agriprocessors, a Kosher meatpacking plant, by President Donald Trump in December of 2017. A bipartisan group of over “100 former high-ranking and distinguished Department of Justice officials, prosecutors, judges and legal scholars along with 30 current Members of Congress” wrote letters in support of a review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case.


An Exploiter of Child and Immigrant Labor 

In 2008, Rubashkin was the target of what was at the time the largest workplace ICE raid in United States history. These hundreds of high-powered politicians and lawyers bent over backward to commute a sentence of a criminal, scoffing at the work of 900 ICE agents. These agents descended on the plant with helicopters and buses in tow to detain 398 illegal employees of mostly South American origin.

It’s hard to deny that Rubashkin exploited our immigration system to hire hundreds of illegal employees in order to game the system for his own financial gain. Rubashkin exploited immigrants, creating work conditions just as bad as those at any border detention camp.

An affidavit cited “the issuance of 697 criminal complaints and arrest warrants against persons believed to be current employees” and to have acted criminally.  The affidavit from the Department of Homeland Security stated that “All of the named individual defendants (including Rubashkin) possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens.” It is assumed that he knew that many of those workers were also minors, many of whom handled hazardous equipment like circular saws, meat grinders and power shears.

The Attorney General of Iowa’s office said that Rubashkin’s company encouraged the submission of forged identification documents by job applicants. Company records also revealed that employees were not properly compensated for overtime work.


An Unholy Alliance

Nancy Pelosi, one of Trump’s arch-enemies, backed him on this commutation, calling the sentence “unduly harsh.” Pelosi has continuously decried the “barbaric” conditions within border camps while advocating for Rubashkin ⁠— a man charged with 9,000 misdemeanors for child labor violations ⁠— in the same breath. How can Pelosi speak to the plight of illegal immigrants when she advocated for such an abuser to be released from jail? The exploited immigrants certainly faced a harsher reality than Rubashkin, and it is telling that she advocated for him over them. 

The purported defender of law enforcement and immigration officers, Trump blatantly contradicted his own rhetoric by commuting this sentence. Trump claims to fight for American jobs but has aided a man who exploited our system and hundreds of illegal immigrants (including children) instead of legally hiring American workers. Breaking from the logic of his political foundations, Trump kowtowed to political elites, ignoring the federal employees who put hundreds of hours and millions of dollars into the operation that exposed such an unsavory character. 


A Fish Rots From the Head Down

After the raid, dominoes began to fall at Agriprocessors. Rubashkin was arrested and charged with “conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants for financial gain, aiding and abetting document fraud, and aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft.” Charges also included the failure to pay the final paychecks of 42 workers, deductions from paychecks for “frock” uniforms and money for new false identification documents for 40 employees just before the raid.

Rubashkin was convicted of only 86 charges, earning him 27 well-deserved years in prison. The immigration charges were mysteriously dropped, despite the fact that Rubashkin’s complicity in the facilitation of immigrant and child labor at Agriprocessors.

Hosam Amara, a low-level manager, admitted as much in his deal with the government, which landed him in prison. According to an FBI document, Amara complained to Rubashkin about a lack of workers ⁠— and Rubashkin placed new undocumented workers on the payroll of a separate company to hide their employment at Agriprocessors. Amara then told current undocumented workers to encourage their family members to join the plant.

Laura Althouse, a Human Resources employee at Agriprocessors, pleaded guilty to “conspiring to harbor undocumented aliens and aggravated identity theft.” Unsurprisingly, lower-level employees like Amara and Althouse bore the brunt of these child labor and immigration charges. During this time, Agriprocessors was fined nearly $10 million dollars by the State of Iowa for labor violations, the largest fine ever leveled by the Iowa Workforce Development at the time.


A Deserved, “Draconian” Sentence

Shamefully, 72 immigration charges against Rubashkin were scrapped. Dropping these damning charges directly affected his shortened term. The same prosecutors tasked with convicting Rubashkin suddenly advocated for the dismissal of these charges ⁠— in order to save money and not inconvenience the poor witnesses, of course. The fabricated outcry of attorneys and politicians over his sentence claimed that fraud charges do not warrant such a long sentence.

If the proper charges were pursued, the claim of a “draconian” sentence would’ve fallen flat. At least 50 percent of Agriprocessors meatpacking employees were undocumented and Rubashkin was aware ⁠— making him responsible and guilty. The dismissal of these charges prevented many immigrants from the opportunity to testify against their exploitative employer. Despite his clear violation of the law, politicians across the board lined up to support freeing Rubashkin, revealing the cronyism and privilege of the rigged system that allowed him to walk free.


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