MARSHALLTOWN — Matthew Whitaker was in his third year as a U.S. attorney in Iowa when he learned that hundreds of undocumented immigrants might be working at a meat-processing facility in Marshalltown, an hour’s drive from his Des Moines office.
He said he was “shocked” and decided to take action. What followed became one of the highest-profile and most controversial actions of Whitaker’s five-year career as a prosecutor.
Federal agents in 2006 raided the plant, arresting nearly 100 workers. Some were later deported, advocates said.
Whitaker also brought charges of harboring undocumented immigrants against a company personnel manager and a union vice president. One case resulted in probation and the other was dismissed, according to records and interviews.
Whitaker’s aggressive actions foreshadowed the role he now is playing at the highest levels of the Trump administration. While attorney general nominee William P. Barr waits for his Senate confirmation hearing, Whitaker is using his remaining time at the helm of the Justice Department to promote President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
As acting attorney general, he unveiled a new rule making it harder for immigrants to seek asylum. Earlier this month, Whitaker delivered a blistering speech in Austin praising the border crackdown and declaring that “massive illegal immigration makes all of us less safe.”
Whitaker promoted the administration’s effort to end what he called “President (Barack) Obama’s unlawful DACA program,” which allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to remain under certain conditions.
To many in this city of 27,000, Whitaker’s embrace of immigration crackdowns is misguided. The 2006 raid did not bring more security to their community, they said, but rather upended a community in urgent need of workers for local pork-producing facilities and other companies.
“We’re still trying to recover from it,” Marshalltown police Chief Michael Tupper said. “I think that there’s just a lot of fear that it could happen again. It was a very traumatic experience for our community. Not just for the families and people that were directly impacted, but for our school system, for our local economy, for our community as a whole. It was, in many ways, a devastating experience.”
Mayor Joel Greer, a Democrat, said he has “concerns about the enforcement of the immigration policy that Mr. Whitaker espouses.”
“Every large employer in town is having trouble finding workers,” Greer said. “If I had the magic wand, I would wave it and stop the ICE raids and figure out how to let people come in as immigrants legally and fill our plants.”
Whitaker did not respond to a request for comment.
After serving as a U.S. attorney in Iowa, the former Iowa Hawkeye football player based a 2014 run for the U.S. Senate in part on the actions he ordered in Marshalltown,
During the campaign, he highlighted his role in the arrests of a company official and union worker, telling The Gazette that “in Marshalltown, I pursued those who hired illegal immigrants.”
Having visited border areas in Texas and California as U.S. attorney, Whitaker told the blog Caffeinated Thoughts, “I was able to see what our border looks like and the fact it is under assault on a daily basis from people trying to bring illegal people and illegal drugs into our country.”
He said he would not support amnesty for undocumented immigrants, which was being discussed at the time, “because the American worker who currently cannot find a job, if we legalize 11 or 12 million people, that will put them under tremendous pressure in their job search and on their wages.”
As U.S. attorney, Whitaker took credit for initiating the six-state raid that was designed to be one of the largest crackdowns of undocumented workers at the time. He said he decided to take action when he learned that as many as 664 potential undocumented immigrants were working at the Marshalltown plant — about a third of its workforce.
Whitaker told NPR at the time that when he learned that so many undocumented immigrants were believed to be working at the plant, “it shocked my common sense and reason.”
Whitaker told the Associated Press that after he was alerted to the situation by immigration authorities, “I determined that something had to be done.”
The morning of Dec. 12, 2006, began festively, as many migrants throughout the city prepared to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. Roses were arranged at the Catholic churches, where parishioners offered prayers of devotion and patriotism.
More than 1,000 people headed to their shift at the plant, ready for another day of butchering thousands of pigs.
Federal agents arrived and asked workers for identification papers, according to news accounts. The workers were asked if they had children. If they did, one parent would not be immediately deported and was supposed to be allowed to stay with them in Marshalltown, according to Sister Christine Feagan, director of Hispanic ministries at Saint Mary Catholic Church.
But Feagan said many immigrants feared that if they revealed that they had children, then their sons and daughters would face deportation.
“They separated the men and the women, and then they were asked if they had any kids,” Feagan said. “They thought that meant that (the agents) would be taking the kids. And so they said, “no, they didn’t have any kids.’”
So when some of those parents were deported, their children were left behind, she said.
The feelings from that day remain so raw that many “still wake up in the middle of the night, afraid,” Feagan said.
The raids in Iowa and five other states took place at plants owned by Swift & Co., a Colorado-based firm. They resulted in 1,297 arrests, about 10 percent of the company’s employees, according to news reports.
A number of those arrested were found to have used fake names and identification papers, according to news reports at the time, but it is not clear how many were later deported.
At Marshalltown, 99 people were arrested, far fewer than Whitaker had anticipated.
“All I know is that we did not encounter as many as we had expected when we went in there last week,” Whitaker said at the time.
In the years that followed, his office focused on prosecuting two cases related to the raid.
Braulio Pereyra-Gabino, a union vice president at the Swift plant, was arrested on charges of harboring undocumented immigrants. He had been secretly recorded by an immigration agent advising Spanish-speaking workers what to do if approached by government authorities.
Pereyra-Gabino’s attorney, Keith Rigg, argued that his client was merely giving a speech to workers, not harboring undocumented immigrants. Pereyra-Gabino declined to comment.
“This case was big because they prosecuted somebody for giving a speech,” Rigg said. “It is one of the most important cases I’ve ever done in my career. If they want to prosecute you for what you say to people, you need to fight that back with every breath you have.”
Pereyra-Gabino was acquitted of charges of identity theft and Social Security fraud, but he was convicted on the harboring charge in May 2008 and sentenced to one year and one day in prison, along with a $2,100 fine.
But an appeals court sent the matter back to the lower court, and the case was dismissed in 2009 after prosecutors decided not to pursue it.
In the second case, a Swift human resources official, Christopher Lamb, pleaded guilty to hiding an undocumented immigrant and was sentenced to probation and a $200 fine. Lamb could not be reached for comment.
Today, large numbers of undocumented immigrants continue to live in Marshalltown, according to advocates and city officials, although figures are impossible to verify.
At the Abarrotes La Salud grocery store near the plant, co-owner Silvestre Vargas said many migrants like himself had come from the Mexican state of Michoacan. With plenty of job opportunities at the local plants and in construction jobs to repair damage from a severe tornado that hit in July, “a lot more” immigrants would come if they were allowed, Vargas said.
The Swift plant eventually was bought by a company called JBS, and it is thriving, according to city officials, who said they believe the operation would expand if it could find more workers.
The company declined to comment, but a notice for an October job fair on the company’s Facebook page said the starting wage for maintenance workers is $18.80, far above Iowa’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Whitaker, in his Dec. 11 speech in Austin, associated illegal immigration with crime, drugs and gangs. The United States “spends billions of dollars on illegal aliens” that “could be spent on Americans,” he said.
But Marshalltown officials said immigrants have helped their community thrive.
“The reality of it is that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than our native population,” said Tupper, the police chief. “Our immigrant community here is in many ways the backbone of our community.”