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.
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Then Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, some 500 strong, descended on Postville on May 12, 2008, to arrest Agriprocessors workers they suspected of not having proper documents. As helicopters thumped overhead, they rounded up 389 people. It was the largest immigration raid in US history.Skip to next paragraph
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The plant foundered under the weight of the raid, and, by November, Agriprocessors declared bankruptcy. It then closed, though a small portion of it has since reopened and is being run by a US Bankruptcy Court trustee.
Most of the illegal workers either accepted immediate deportation or pleaded guilty to immigration or document fraud charges, and, once they had served time, were sent home. Several dozen immigrants, mostly women, were released to care for children. They remain in Postville, but must wear electronic ankle bracelets so the government can monitor them.
Local churches and aid groups have taken up the plight of the undocumented workers who remain, offering food, clothing, housing, and help with lawyers. Father Paul Ouderkirk of St. Bridget's Roman Catholic Church estimates his congregation is dispensing $80,000 a month alone – money that has come in from across the country.
Operators of the plant are faring less well. Sholom Rubashkin is awaiting federal trial on charges of bank fraud and violating immigration and packing-plant laws and regulations. Several of his managers face immigration or document-alteration charges. The state has also filed misdemeanor charges against Mr. Rubashkin, including for multiple alleged infractions of child-labor laws. He has pleaded innocent to the charges. [Editor's note: The original version failed to note that Mr. Rubashkin was released on bail in January.]
The ripple effects from the raid remain palpable in Postville – especially coming amid a virulent national recession. The town will likely default on a federal loan it took out to expand its wastewater treatment plant. Nearly 50 percent of the brick storefronts on the south edge of Lawler Street, as well as on adjoining Greene Street, lie vacant.
"The people, they don't have any money right now," says Elver Herrera, a Guatemalan who left his packing-plant job several years ago to run a bakery in downtown Postville. He has watched many stores close and has now posted a "For Sale" sign in his window. "I'm not gonna make it," says Mr. Herrera, who is married to an Iowan.
Few here seem to be giving up on Postville, though. Far from it. Bill Anderson exudes the kind of stoicism and resiliency that permeates farm country. He has sold gasoline and tuned up cars on South Lawler for 46 years – well before Agriprocessors first took over the operation and even before another meat plant on the site closed in the 1980s. "We got by," he says with clipped finality. "We'll get by."