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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.

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A KEY QUESTION IS whether Agriprocessors will play any part of the town's future. Local officials believe it is operating at about one-third of capacity (the bankruptcy court trustee, Joseph Sarachek, who's overseeing the operation, couldn't be reached for comment), which isn't enough to do much good for Postville. Town officials hear about deals to sell it to Israeli investors, but they are moving on either way. They're inviting outside experts to plot ways to revive the town.

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In April, representatives of Jewish Community Action (JCA), of St. Paul, Minn., and the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs visited Postville to offer help. Both groups have worked here for several years. "Jewish organizations ... have a special obligation to take action to improve conditions in this plant for all workers, and to strive for comprehensive immigration reform because we were once immigrants in this country," says JCA head Vic Rosenthal, noting also how important the plant has been in supplying kosher food.

Others are suggesting ways to protect the workers and community if the plant fully resumes operations. Russ Adams, of the Minneapolis-based Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, touts the virtues of "community benefit agreements." These forge pacts between citizens and corporations on issues such as fair labor and environmental practices.

Many people agree the plant would need to be run differently. "It's all about not getting taken a second time," says the Rev. Stephen Brackett of St. Paul's Lutheran Church. "There are a lot of people who say that plant ruined this town."

The town may, in fact, want to look beyond the meat business altogether. Jeff Schott, a community affairs expert at the University of Iowa, is encouraging local officials to devise a "wish list" of where they want to be in five years – the types of jobs, parks, healthcare, and other services – and then work to attract businesses and retailers. John Molinaro of the Aspen Institute believes Postville should avoid being "seduced" by industrial recruitment and encourage local entrepreneurialism – firms that build on any natural assets the town possesses.

Whatever direction the town takes, it will likely have to do it on its own. The state chipped in $680,000 and sent two AmeriCorps volunteers to Postville after the raid. But it's still struggling to clean up from last summer's floods in eastern Iowa.That means much of the task of reinventing the town will fall on people like Maryn Olson, whose paper-cluttered desk sits in what used to be the Somali-run coffee shop. The head of the Response Coalition feels the town is off to a good start. But it's just a start.

Still, she, like other locals, seems undaunted. Kim Deering, who runs the Wishing Well flower and gift shop, may have put it best. Postville, she says simply, was – and is – more than Agriprocessors.•