An Immigration Raid and a Subpoena in Postville, Iowa

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 14, 2008 2 min read
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The Des Moines Register broke a story yesterday about how, prior to a raid by federal immigration authorities on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, on Monday, the Postville Community School District was given a subpoena to turn over detailed information about students to the Iowa Division of Labor Services. The subpoena included a mandate to provide the names of students working at two apartment buildings that had been owned by a Postville school guidance counselor and sold to the CEO of Agriprocessors Inc., the same company that owns the plant that was raided this week.

I was curious if there was a connection between the subpoena and the immigration raid. In other words, did any information provided by school district officials, when they complied with the subpoena, get into the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents? And is this another incident where educators have been dragged into an area of federal law that is murky? What steps should school officials take in such situations to ensure that undocumented students get the free public education in this country guaranteed by the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe? (I’ve written about this issue in a Sept. 12, 2007, article for Education Week, “With Immigrants, Districts Balance Safety, Legalities.”)

I followed up with my own interviews of Gail Sheridan-Lucht, an attorney for Iowa Labor Commissioner David Neil, and David Strudthoff, the superintendent of the Postville school system, to write a story about the immigration raid and the subpoena, which you can find here.

Ms. Sheridan-Lucht said she issued the subpoena to the school district as part of a joint investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Iowa Division of Labor Services into various labor practices of the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville. The investigation included the possible violation of state and federal child labor laws, Ms. Sheridan-Lucht said. (In fact, 12 minors were arrested at the plant during Monday’s raid, according to federal officials.)

Mr. Strudthoff said he wasn’t told about the impending immigration raid at the time that he was handed the subpoena in early April—and he doesn’t know if information about Postville students, such as addresses and telephone numbers, was turned over to federal immigration authorities. Ms. Sheridan-Lucht said she couldn’t comment on the issue because the labor investigation was still going on.

Roger L. Rice, the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., a Somerville, Mass.-based immigrant advocacy group, pointed out to me in a phone interview that the Postville school district was served with a subpoena from a state agency, not a federal court. “I have never heard of this before,” he said. “How many branches of the state of Iowa government are there? Can they all get this information? I don’t think so.”

Mr. Rice said he believes Postville school district lawyers should have gone to court “to quash the subpoena as a violation of [students’] privacy rights and their right to attend school.”

But Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston who specializes in immigration law, had a different take. “I am not against legitimate law enforcement, including enforcement of child labor laws,” he wrote to me in an e-mail message. “If that is accomplished by a legitimate subpoena, I assume it has met the test of such requirements. That it involves immigration ... does not change the basics.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.