On December 2, 2008, a delegation of United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ pastors and laypersons from Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota traveled to Postville, Iowa to learn about the historic large-scale immigration raid that took place in May 2008. We met with detainees, pastors and lay workers who recounted the raid itself and told of the devastating effects still being felt in this community seven months later.
Postville is small-town Northeast Iowa. Picture hard-working people carefully tend their yards and gardens. They know their neighbors. They see each other at church, little league games and high school sporting events. Folks stop and chat on Main Street or at the local diner and families enjoy home-cooked meals with each other just about every evening.
Ethnic diversity doesn’t immediately come to mind with this picture. But in Postville, Iowa, population 1,478, an intermingling of diverse cultures has taken root over the past twenty years. In the late 1980’s a new kosher meat processing plant brought into the mix 300 Hasidic Jews who haled from New York City and 400 migrant workers, mainly from Guatemala and Mexico. Two decades later, half of the population of Postville is made up of new-comers who are more or less successfully being integrated into the community.
On May 12, 2008, 900 ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents conducted a military-style siege upon Postville and the Agriprocessors kosher meat-processing plant. Agents armed with assault weapons and motion and heat-sensing devices descended upon the town in helicopters and passenger vans while school children watched in fright from their classroom windows. The entire town was traumatized by this disproportionate show of force. In all, 398 people were arrested on immigration charges, about 30% of the town’s population.
The arrestees were taken to the Cattle Congress, the county fairgrounds, and held in animal pens while they awaited being formally charged. ICE agents joked that the detainees were the equivalent of animals. Besides immigration violations, many were also charged with identity theft for having used false social security numbers provided by Agriprocessors for a fee to each worker of $220. This marks the first time undocumented persons have been charged with this type of felony crime which carries with it fines and prison time, greatly complicating each case.
Women - mothers - with minor children were placed under house arrest and tethered with a Global Positioning System (GPS)-monitoring device around their ankles. They are not allowed to leave Iowa until their hearings (set for May 2009) but neither are they permitted to work. How can they provide for themselves and their children, most of whom are US citizens? The men - many fathers, husbands - taken into custody were ferried between eight or nine different prisons from Miami to Texas, only to be shipped back to Postville under house arrest and tethered with GPS-ankle bracelets. While imprisoned their families were frantic to know where they had been taken. Multiple moves from one prison to another and another complicated their ability to stay in touch with their families or receive legal council. Many are still caught in this nightmare. Others, after agreeing to testify to Agriprocessors’ child labor law violations, are now back in Postville. They share the same fate as the women: they cannot leave Iowa and are not permitted to work. No government provisions are made for their food or housing. How are they to live and provide for their families?
We met with a group of men all wearing ankle bracelets. Hard-working people who were good neighbors in this small-town community, they spoke of the humiliation they felt at being treated like criminals and forced into dependency. They originally came to Iowa because they’d heard there was work at the meat-packing plant. They were happy to find a small town not entirely different from their own small towns back home.
Immigration from Mexico and Latin America has mushroomed since NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) went into effect in the 1990’s. NAFTA undermines local economies in favor of global markets. Employment opportunities in their own communities in Mexico and Guatemala are fewer and fewer. At the same time, US companies like Agriprocessors are built around access to this desperate labor pool will work for low wages in unsafe conditions.
Trade and immigration policies are intimately linked and in need of comprehensive reform for the good of all. For instance, conservative estimates of the cost of the Postville ICE raid to US taxpayers are approximately $13 million. Their local economy devastated and the social fabric torn, who can say how long it will take for the town of Postville to recover from the chain of events set in motion by the ICE raid?
On the day of the raid, Postville churches responded immediately and continue to provide support services for those who await trial. During the siege on their town, individuals and families sought sanctuary in St. Bridget’s Catholic Church and Community Presbyterian Church in Postville. Churches and their pastors and congregants were immediately willing to help provide a safe space for their neighbors. An ecumenical prayer vigil and march to Agriprocessors was quickly organized. It’s significant to note that ICE agents did not enter the churches to make arrests.
During the first month after the raid, 1,000 meals a day were served at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church. Father Paul Ouderkirk estimates that his parish is spending about $30,000 each month to support those who are living under house arrest and their families. Postville is not a wealthy community and St. Bridget’s is a humble parish. Theirs is a profound generosity of spirit and resources, the stuff of deep solidarity, the best of what it means to be a neighbor. Even as one asks how the detainees will be able survive, you can’t help wondering how much longer St. Bridget’s will be able to sustain itself and all whom they are supporting?
The quick and faithful response of the churches instructs us. The Postville churches formed a different kind of bracelet – a bracelet of love and solidarity – around threatened parishioners and neighbors. Should a raid like this occur in or nearby our communities, would our congregations respond in kind?
This is an excellent time for congregations and groups to study the roots and reality of immigration along with learning the rights of immigrants and their advocates. A good resource can be found in the book, The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, by Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson, Monthly Review Press, 2007. A local organization doing excellent work on this issue is the Chicago New Sanctuary Movement. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.