President Trump’s commutation last week of the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, who was convicted in 2009 of bank fraud and money laundering, was a commendable act of kindness. That’s primarily because the former chief executive of what had been the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the country had served eight years of a disproportionately heavy 27-year sentence.
Just about one year ago, in this space, we called for outgoing President Obama to commute Rubashkin’s sentence. “There is no question that Rubashkin broke the law and deserved to be punished,” we wrote. “But 107 former Justice Department officials have joined with legislators from Capitol Hill and Orthodox Jewish leaders to argue that justice was far from served by dispatching an aging father of 10 — at 57 years old, Rubashkin still has 20 years left of his sentence — behind bars for close to three decades.”
Obama ignored the Rubashkin pleas. Trump acted, and cited bipartisan support to free Rubashkin. It is to the president’s credit that he had the courage to act after hearing so many respected voices of support.
After his release from prison, Rubashkin was welcomed by a jubilant crowd at the Brooklyn headquarters of the Chabad movement, to which Rubashkin belongs. But we hope the joy surrounding his release is tempered by the recognition that Rubashkin was not innocent — nor was Trump’s move a pardon. Rubashkin bears responsibility for the crimes for which he was convicted. He is no one’s model of an ethical businessman.
A massive federal immigration raid in 2008 at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, led to the arrest of nearly 400 undocumented Guatemalans and Mexican workers. Rubashkin was charged a year later on the bank fraud and money laundering charges as he tried to sell the company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. He was found guilty of the crimes and deserved to be punished. He didn’t deserve a 27-year sentence.
Not to be forgotten are the 400 undocumented workers. They were caught between alleged inhuman treatment by Rubashkin and his staff and a broken U.S. immigration system that rendered them invisible. The year before the Agriprocessors raid, the Senate killed an immigration reform bill. That was the last time the legislature attempted an immigration overhaul. More recently, immigration policy has been dominated by travel bans and talks of walls and Mexican rapists.
Rubashkin will be on supervised release. He also has a “substantial restitution obligation,” according to the White House. We’re happy Rubashkin has rejoined his family and community. The president did the right thing. But there is still work to be done, both in terms of fixing a broken immigration system and in ensuring that the powerful among us do not bend the levers of power, whether judicial or financial, to serve their own ends.