One Year After Immigration Raid, Postville, Iowa Struggles to Survive

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the raid by immigration authorities on a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The raid at Agriprocessors ended with the arrest of nearly 400 undocumented workers, and became a symbol of the Bush Administration’s hardline approach to immigration enforcement.

A year later, news reports from Postville make it clear that the town’s survival was endangered by the raid, and the plant’s fate is not yet decided.

After a great number of those arrested served prison sentences and were deported, many local businesses closed and the Agriprocessors plant itself never managed to get back on its feet. The company’s main executives face a number of charges including violation of child-labor, immigration and industrial safety laws.

July 27 Immigration Reform March, Postville Iowa. In support of workers at Agriproccessors plant. (Photo: FlickrCC/Prairie Robin)

July 27 Immigration Reform March, Postville Iowa. In support of workers at Agriproccessors plant. (Photo: FlickrCC/Prairie Robin)

For pro-immigrant activists, Postville has become shorthand for what was wrong with an immigration enforcement approach that focused mainly on lining up immigrants by the dozens or hundreds and speedily deporting them back to their home countries. With the change in occupancy at the White House, advocates are now waiting to see if President Barack Obama — whose administration is reviewing the policy on work-site raids — will call them off for good.

In the aftermath of the Agriprocessors raid, 270 undocumented workers were charged with identity theft — which led them to accept plea deals that included swift deportation. New York Times reporter Julia Preston described the legal proceedings in a speech we published last year:

On May 12, the day of the round-up at the Postville plant, the defense lawyers were presented by the United States Attorney with plea agreements: the immigrants could either accept a criminal charge that would entail five months in federal prison, or go to trial on a more severe felony charge that involved a two-year mandatory minimum. Most of the offenses revolved around the immigrants’ use of fraudulent social security cards or immigration visas, known as green cards, to obtain work. Only a handful of the immigrants had any prior criminal record. They were being treated as criminals for working.

Just a week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that undocumented workers who unknowingly use Social Security numbers that belong to real people can’t be charged with “aggravated identity theft.” The ruling applies to many former Agriprocessors workers, but they have long since been deported, and are unlikely to benefit from the court’s decision.

Tuesday, Jewish and Catholic congregations in town will remember the raid with vigils and a march.

“No community should have to go through what Postville has had to go through in the past year,” Maryn Olson, a community activist, told the Des Moines Register newspaper.

According to the paper, several hundred activists will gather Tuesday to mark the anniversary, including some from Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere.

As we reported last year, three quarters of the workers led away during the raid,

were hustled through the legal system in a matter of a few weeks — arrested, detained and then allowed to plead guilty to charges they didn’t understand, unaware that they were facing criminal charges and were being sent to prison for sentences averaging five months each.

The treatment of these workers led a long-time court interpreter and college professor, Erik Camayd-Freixas, to break his professional code of silence to report on the abuses that these workers faced in a 12-page essay that made national headlines.

[ Two Standards of Justice: Are Employers Paying a Price for Illegal Immigration?Feet In 2 Worlds ]

Sister Mary McCauley, a Catholic nun, told Radio Iowa that the raid “devastated” the town. “…(R)ight afterwards the town was ‘shattered’ and then pulled together and strengthened itself as the town tried to help the people involved. But, she says the recovery did not last long after the raid.”

McCauley says other people were brought into the plant that were just as needy and when the plant was shut down for a few days, those people depended on the community.

“It was just like almost too much need for the town to handle,” McCauley says. She says business then started to shut down and the town was “really hurt.”

[ Events planned Tuesday to mark the anniversary

of Agriprocessors raid — Radio Iowa ]

Postville’s hopes now rest mostly on a new company acquiring the kosher plant, since Agriprocessors sought bankruptcy protection six months after the raid, The Associated Press reported.

“If the plant sells, life might return to normal within a few years,” said Pastor Steve Brackett of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Postville. “It might. There’ll be a lot of time involved with making up lost ground. The businesses we’ve lost are not going to reopen.

“If it doesn’t end up selling, we are in dire straits.”

[ Amid vigils, Iowa town pins hopes

on sale of plant — The A.P. ]

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.