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How an immigration raid changed a town

Tiny Postville, Iowa, struggles to regain its footing one year after the largest immigration sweep in US history.

By Steve Dinnen /Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2009

Businesses along the quintessentially small-town Lawler Street have suffered in the year since a raid on a meatpacking plant.

Sally Morrow Gomez

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Postville, Iowa

This town tucked in the black-loam corner of northeastern Iowa has long been a bustling, polyglot place. If it was a morning pastry you wanted, you could get it at a Somali-run coffee shop. Other red-brick storefronts along Lawler Street, the main thoroughfare, specialized in Mexican or Guatemalan food.

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Jewish kids attended school at their own yeshiva, while their parents bought matzo ball mix and gefilte fish at a kosher restaurant and grocery store. A sign at the high school track and football field, set hard against rows of corn, cautioned youths about rollerblading or biking on the grounds – in English, Spanish, and Ukrainian.

But then federal immigration authorities raided the dominant business in town, a meat-processing plant, which employed almost half the area's 2,300 residents, many of them undocumented workers. Today, one year later, Postville is hanging on by a bib-overall thread.

The slaughterhouse is bankrupt. Scores of homes have been vacated by the workers who were either deported or thrown out of jobs. Retailers are shuttering businesses. Most telling of all, the city council has declared the town a disaster area.

In many ways, Postville represents a classic tale of what can happen when a large employer in a small town runs into trouble. It's a story of how a government raid – however justified – has changed a town. Now, as Postville tries to reinvent itself, it may hold lessons for other towns across the country.

"What happened did not happen overnight, and a recovery will not happen overnight," says Maryn Olson, the head of the Postville Response Coalition, a group of business, church, and civic leaders working to save the town.

A NO-TRAFFIC-LIGHT TOWN set in undulating dairy country, Postville was humming along in preraid times due mostly to the presence of Agriprocessors Inc. New York investor Aaron Rubashkin had purchased a shuttered Postville meatpacking plant in 1987 with plans to specialize in producing kosher chicken and beef.

By 2008 Agriprocessors, which was being run in Iowa by Mr. Rubashkin's son Sholom, was processing 60,000 chickens and buying 500 cattle a day from area livestock producers. It was the largest kosher meatpacker in the country, employing about 1,000 people.

Agriprocessors hired Jewish rabbis to kill each animal to kosher standards. Further processing was conducted by local hires, and when that pool was tapped out, the company turned to immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, Somalia, Mexico, Israel, and most notably Guatemala.

An area first settled by German and other European immigrants (Czech composer Anton Dvorak and his family spent summers in nearby Spillville) suddenly found itself teeming with people from new lands. Adjustments needed to be made, such as including more Spanish in schools and getting acquainted with Jewish customs. Lawler Street, with all its ethnic storefronts, looked like a mini United Nations in a cornfield.