Postville Today: Triumph Over Tragedy
By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa
Fifteen years ago, the US government spent over $5M on what was then the largest immigration raid in the history of the country. They arrested 389 undocumented workers at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant, approximately 20% of Postville’s population. Of those arrested, 290 were Guatemalan, 93 Mexican, 4 Ukrainian and 2 were Israeli. In 2008 Postville had a population of just over 2,200. It declined even more when immigrant families who did not work at the plant fled in fear after the raid. Since then, the population has slowly climbed to 2,460.
The raid was part of Operation Endgame launched in 2003, designed to deport eleven million undocumented people by 2012. It was meant as a model to be implemented across the US. The raid positioned Postville at the center of international news, becoming a catalyst for changes to workplace laws regarding immigration. A decade and a half later, the negative impacts still weigh heavily on the town, but the residents fought hard to rebuild their community and sense of belonging in a place they chose as home.
Pedro Lopez was 13 years old on May 12, 2008, when Postville was overtaken by Blackhawk helicopters, hundreds of armed federal agents dressed in bulletproof vests and gear like they were going to war. Bus after bus drove through town to transport undocumented employees as though they were violent criminals. “I was in school and heard rumors of a raid at the plant, which wasn’t too far from the school. It was like a movie. I thought, I don’t have parents anymore. They’re gone. What am I going to do now? There’s not much a kid can do when everything gets taken from you.”
Most of the employees were of Mayan descent, from rural towns in Guatemala and southern Mexico where necessities were scarce. Lured to Postville by the promise of jobs and a better life for their families, they settled in the town, purchasing homes, establishing lives, and bringing an added layer of diversity. Lopez remembers, “it was such a unique place before the raid. It was a vibrant melting pot of cultures. You had generations of Norwegians, Hassidic Jews from New York, and Eastern European immigrants. Then Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran families came and made the community feel so alive. There was always a community event, a baile, a festival, bautizo, a quince, someone grilling carne asada at the park who would call you over and offer you a taco. I grew up in a super diverse, interesting community in the middle of nowhere.” But in the span of a few hours, the town was devastated, turned into a scary place where kids like Pedro lived in terror, not knowing where their parents had been taken, if they would ever see them again, or if they were next. “There were rumors of vans roaming the streets, snatching up immigrants. It was terrifying. I thought of my dad. If he got picked up, what would we do?”
Lopez’ mother, like the almost 400 others, was arrested on identity theft and fraud charges for using a social security number to secure a minimum wage job killing cows and chickens at the largest employer in town, a slaughterhouse owned by Aaron Rubashkin and managed by his son Sholom. Most of the arrested workers signed confessions they didn’t understand, leading to five-month jail sentences followed by deportation. Some women were forced to wear ankle monitors that tracked their movements, prohibiting them from working, taking their children to the doctor, or fulfilling their basic needs. Fear was thick. Hundreds of undocumented residents took shelter at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, afraid of being arrested and deported. Others fled the town and never returned. Lopez and his siblings spent days in his basement, horrified of being seen and separated further. What was once a place of joy and pleasantries felt like the apocalypse, courtesy of the US government’s broken immigration system.
But immigrants are resilient. They come from ancestral lines of innovators and warriors. With the help of Iowans like Sonia Parras, an immigration attorney originally from Spain who dedicated hundreds of pro-bono hours representing the workers, they made history.
Parras was called to help with intake. Volunteers at the Waterloo Cattle Congress where the majority of detainees were taken were overwhelmed. They didn’t have much time to process everyone and get statements. They worked through the night. Parras was struck by how young some of them looked. “How old are you?” She asked one of the women. She was only fifteen. Parras knew this was going to be about more than immigration. The plant had been under investigation by the Department of Labor under suspicion of child labor law violations, wage theft, sexual harassment, and a list of other infractions. However, none of the employees would talk to investigators. Parras designed a new set of questions for the volunteers to ask the detainees. Her plan was to find out if they were eligible for U Visas, which would help them stay in the US. The U Visa was created by Congress in 2000 for victims of specifically designated crimes, regardless of their immigration status. According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website, “The legislation was intended to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of noncitizens and other crimes, while also protecting victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse due to the crime and are willing to help law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.” Parras uncovered numerous crimes that fell under the regulations and got to work filing out applications.
It wasn’t easy work. Detainees had to recall painful, violent, and inhumane treatment at the hands of supervisors. They were afraid, but their worse fear had happened. There was nothing to lose, so they shared their stories. “Because we worked with so many women, they understood more about their rights and when they are being exploited. They told other women. Some of the U Visa applicants were not part of the raid, they came forward because they experienced crimes in the workplace. [Today] they’re more willing than before the raid to call 9-1-1 because they know there is help for survivors. That was an unintended consequence of the raid,” says Parras. Empowering the community brought them together and made them stronger. “I spent many, many weekends in Postville, working with families for five years. We keep in touch through Facebook. I see how strong they have become because of what happened to them, what an amazing addition they are to the community.”
Their cases got the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. A year after the Postville raid, they ruled that undocumented workers cannot be charged with identity theft unless it can be proven they knew that they used an authentic Social Security number. Most who were detained in Postville testified that their employer provided many of the social security numbers they used when hired, thus having no knowledge of whether they belonged to anyone. This ruling ended ICE’s often used threat of an identity theft charge to get undocumented workers to agree to immediate deportation in lieu of any legal representation, which had been the strategy during workplace raids.
After the raid, Postville tried to replenish their workforce by recruiting from homeless shelters in neighboring cities and states; appealing to the people of Palau, an island in the Pacific where the citizens can travel freely within the US; and Somali refugees that had been making Minnesota their home. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work. Most of those populations didn’t set roots the way Latinos had. For Lopez, that sense of home kept him going, propelling him to travel across the nation with documentarian Luis Argueta who directed and produced AbUSed: The Postville Raid, to speak out about the need for immigration reform. Even as he advocated, he lived in a constant state of sadness and confusion. He didn’t know if Parras would get his mother a U Visa or of he would have to return to Mexico, a country he hadn’t been to since he was two and a half years old. “Even to this day, if I was picked up and sent to Mexico it would be rough to acclimate. I wouldn’t have any support or know the social cues. It was absolutely terrifying to think I would have to go live there.” Thankfully, after eighteen months, his mother’s U Visa was approved. “I was counting down the days and hours for when my mom came back home. When I saw her again, I was weak in the knees. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew we would be a family again. We knew we could say that Postville was home, where we would set down roots.” When she returned, they rebuilt their family as Postville tried to recover from the devastation left by the raid and the economic collapse that followed.
Today, you can hear nearly a dozen languages spoken around Postville and the housing market has improved. Many of the 170 U Visa recipients returned to Postville, working in agriculture, and opening shops and restaurants around town. While the plant has been shut down, bought by new owners, and reopened under a new name, the Postville residents want to be known for more than the plant’s raid, but for how they came together in the wake of all they lost. “Immigrants like my parents have this magic that no matter what life throws at them, they’re going to make a life for their kids,” says Lopez from his home in Egan, MN where he is a student at the University of Minnesota, getting a dual degree in dental hygiene and dental therapy, a practice he hopes to make viable in Iowa. “I thought I was going to go into law and save the world through immigration law but the need for access to dental services within the immigrant community is huge.” Creating access to dental services is his way of giving back.
When the Rubashkins were acquitted of the over 9,000 counts of labor law and human rights violations and Shalom’s sentence for financial fraud was expunged right before Trump commuted his sentence, Lopez was not surprised. “We have to think about who wins when this happens, who benefits from it?” He is sad that all these years later, after everything we learned from what happened in Postville, raids continue with greater numbers, targeting populations that just want to work and build a life for themselves in rural areas that would otherwise be ghost towns. “Anybody who wants to make an impact to move toward reform should become informed about what’s happening. If you can vote, it is one of the most important things you can do to change rhetoric that makes it easier to make certain groups scapegoats and targets. Like Postville and my family, it begins with people wanting to make life better for themselves and their children. Maybe if we all focus on that for our community, we can spread a little of that magic.”