05/13/2013 10:39 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

What Shameful Postville, Iowa Immigration Raid Teaches Five Years Later

It seems like only yesterday that we heard of the horror coming out of Postville, Iowa.

Immigrants -- 389 to be exact -- were arrested at a local meat processing plant and literally treated like cattle by hundreds of federal agents. They were rounded up at their worksite, the Agriprocessors Inc. plant, chuted through a legal processing system that cut off their civil rights to defend themselves and then detained at a cattle exhibit hall.

For weeks and months afterwards, the public learned of the abuses of workers at the plant. We learned about women who were sexually assaulted by supervisors and of underage employees among those on the "kill" floor of the plant who worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week without overtime pay. The immigration system proved no fairer, as families were separated and individuals were released from the cattle barn wearing electronic homing bracelets to fight their deportation cases in immigration court.

"How many more Postvilles do we have to have" before enacting comprehensive immigration reform? asked Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a champion of immigrants' rights and reform.

Postville happened five years ago this week. We are still waiting for immigration reform.

The embarrassment of Postville forced the federal government to change its tactics, but the senseless immigration system and the fears held by hard working families continue.

Instead of continuing the Bush administration's military-style raids where hundreds of agents stormed worksites across the nation, the Obama administration has focused on "silent raids" in which businesses known for hiring low-wage workers are targeted for audits and forced to turn over their hiring records. These records are reviewed to verify the legal status of workers, upending business operations across the U.S. and trampling on the rights of workers and families.

The administration has also continued detaining and deporting immigrants in record numbers - the very same aspiring citizens who should be on the road to citizenship.

Replacing one bad policy with another is not the solution. Congress now has an opportunity to correct abusive employers' perverse incentives to use the broken immigration system to undercut all workers' labor rights.

The Senate's bipartisan proposal to revamp our immigration laws is a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million immigrants currently in the U.S. without documents. As the workers gain legal status, the opportunities for exploitation by unscrupulous employers should diminish.

To ensure that the civil and labor rights of workers are protected, the bipartisan immigration bill now pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee includes the proposed Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act. The bill would protect workers from retaliation if they blow the whistle on their employers. It also would let them demand back pay and reinstatement when they face retaliatory termination. It would keep unscrupulous employers from exploiting workers -- a practice that undermines employers who play by the rules.

Instead of being chased by federal agents, workers also would be allowed an administrative review when immigration consequences based on their employment arise.

The National Immigration Law Center proudly supports this campaign because immigrant workers are too often abused, denied fair wages, forced to work in unsafe conditions and then threatened by the employer with immigration enforcement if they complain. The exploitation of some workers hurts all workers as employers "race to the bottom" regarding labor and civil rights and fair wages.

Unfortunately, the national push for commonsense immigration reform threatens to come undone at the hands of one of Postville's own senators.

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, filed 77 amendments to the bipartisan proposal, mostly designed to kill the bill and the proposed legalization program.

Last weekend, as the fifth anniversary of the Postville raids approached, immigrants' rights advocates, including church leaders, delivered a letter to Grassley's office in Cedar Rapids, pleading with him to support fair and just immigration reform and to remember the tragedy that occurred in his home state. Among those participating in the Postville commemoration was Sister Mary McCauley of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was among the first to respond to crisis and provide support five years ago.

"I have not yet been able to transform his heart," Sister Mary said of the senator, "but I am not going to give up."

None of us can give up until we have an immigration system that respects human dignity and civil rights.