Today marks the three year anniversary of the raid on the Agriprocessors Inc. kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa that resulted in the detention of nearly 400 immigrant workers with some 300 being fast-tracked through the legal system, incarcerated for months, and deported.
The little town which had been a beacon of diversity and opportunity in rural Iowa was shattered. The removal of hundreds of hardworking residents tore families apart and ripped at the fabric of a community. A domino effect following the raid saw businesses shuttered, houses foreclosed, and a whole community suffering deeply from the ideology of blind enforcement.
“People of faith, Lutherans and LIRS were quick to respond,” said Linda Hartke, president and CEO of LIRS, “But this incident needs to continue to inspire us to courageous and generous acts of welcome.”
To get more perspective on the raid’s long term effects we emailed a close friend of LIRS, Pastor David Vasquez, Campus Pastor at Luther College in Decorah, who has been there for the families of Postville since that fateful day. Pastor Vasquez was kind enough to share some reflections on the raid and the lessons we can draw from that horrible mistake.
Q: What is the situation in Postville today?
With just over 2,000 residents, the town of Postville continues to heal from the May 2008 ICE raid. School enrollment has stabilized and even grown recently, with recent arrivals from other states as well as abroad. Postville’s economy was impacted by the raid and its aftereffects as well as the national economic downturn. Business recovery is slow. The beef-kill is not at full capacity and skilled workers are needed. Finding adequate, affordable housing continues to be a challenge for many families in Postville, particularly given the high deposits required for many rentals and the associated utilities. Many houses are owned by local banks due to foreclosure in the months following the raid, and only available for purchase.
However, a grant-funded homeownership assistance program through the City has enabled multiple families to purchase or rehabilitate homes. Local churches continue to provide assistance to those needing spiritual and emotional support. The impact of unpaid debts and back taxes continues to be felt by the City of Postville and several local businesses. On average, the Postville Food Pantry serves twice as many families each week as it did prior to the raid. The process of healing and recovery is ongoing.
Q: What are some of the long term effects of the raid that are still evident?
The community is only now beginning to recover a sense of hopefulness and future, but it is all quite tenuous. The grief remains of all that was lost–in relationships, effort, financially, and culturally. Efforts are being made for workers to unionize, as reports increase of questionable labor practices within the plant. Together with the school and the New Iowan Center, community efforts are bringing the community back together. The adult community soccer league, which at one point boasted upwards of 14 teams, is restructuring for this summer and they’re hopeful that they will have 6 teams, and with cooperation with Luther College’s soccer program, they may be able to organize weekend tournaments that were a central part of the community’s celebration and gathering.
Q: What did the Postville raid teach us?
The Postville raid has much to teach us, the challenge is whether we will learn its lessons. Postville demands our attention because it is a microcosm of the issues that plague our broken immigration system. It points to the vulnerability of individuals trapped in a system that reaches well beyond their individual decision making. It painfully highlights that the current situation with almost12 million undocumented people in the United States cannot be addressed by simply enforcing our current broken systems–families are torn apart, the economy suffers, our values and convictions as individuals and as a nation are betrayed. The raid also highlights the danger in reducing our legal system simply to a system of punishment, rather than one of justice. The workers–as is the case in the vast majority of immigration enforcement–bear the brunt of the enforcement.
The raid also highlights the danger in reducing our legal system simply to a system of punishment, rather than one of justice.
The community’s response to the Postville raid is also very instructive. People gathered from all walks of life–college students, farmers, migrant workers, religious leaders–and people from various religious traditions–Jews, Muslims, and Christians from a wide variety of traditions. They gathered together chanting “Si se puede!”, “Yes we can!”, several times after the raid to show their support for the workers and the community, sometimes almost reaching in numbers the town’s population! Without a centralized or staffed fundraising effort, donations came from across the country–$5 here, $15 there–to the tune of almost a million dollars to mount a huge, unprecedented response. Thousands of hours were volunteered, not only to respond to the immediate devastation, but also to try to address the more systematic issues behind the raid. Close to 80 individuals affected by the raid had a chance to have their individual cases looked at as the law demands–individually, rather than the way that the majority of those detained who were “processed” in mass. Close to 60 of those individuals turned out to qualify for immigration remedies under current law. Legal representation mattered. Community support made the difference.
Q: Are there any signs of hope for the families affected?
Tomorrow, after exactly three years–1095 days of separation–Fermin will be reunited with his wife and two daughters. Both he and his wife were detained in the raid. Fermin was processed criminally and served 5 months in prison before being deported back to Guatemala. This past Christmas his seven year old daughter Ilvana said she wanted nothing for Christmas, but to see her father again. On the third anniversary of the raid she will get her wish! Fermin’s wife was among those who, once her case was looked at closely, qualified for an immigration remedy. It has taken 3 years to wade through the red-tape and remove what seemed like immovable obstacles, but he has been granted permission to return. Fermin’s return, while sadly not the story for the vast majority of those affected in the raid, points to the impact that advocacy, legal representation–most of it conducted pro-bono by Sonia Parras–can accomplish. Si se puede! (picture of Fermin in Guatemala and Rosa and her daughters in Postville)
Q: Looking back over the last three years what would you consider to be the greatest tragedy that resulted from the Postville raid?
The workers suffered the greatest tragedy–hard working, thoughtful, and very religious folks who sought only to provide for their families. Faced with no prospects but a perennial cycle of poverty, they sought a better future. Many of them were victimized by poverty and conflict in their countries of origin. Here they were victimized again–not only by the detention but by the unnecessary dehumanization of the way they were treated. In addition to the many economic and legal consequences of the raid on their lives, they live daily with the trauma brought on by family separation, excessive use of force, and dehumanization.
Postville changed its town slogan a few years ago to “Hometown to the World.” They have worked hard to remain a community that values and celebrates diversity, but they lost so much on the day of the raid and in its aftermath. This is a community that many–from folks in the community to scholars–viewed as a rural town that was bucking the trend many communities in rural America are facing. Their school was not facing closure. Their access to medical care was stable. Their economy seemed poised to confront the downturn affecting the whole nation. The raid–and the narrow focus on enforcement that fueled it–came to destroy so much of that, without offering an alternative vision for the thousands of rural communities around the country that are looking for a way to hold on to the value and importance of rural life in America.
Q: How did you mobilize students from Luther College to help in Postville?
Tons of volunteers were needed and responded to the needs in Postville, particularly in the early days following the raid. It was a blessing–and quite overwhelming. The community is simply tiny–an estimated 2,300 at the time of the raid–so when close to half of its population was directly affected by the raid (and a fifth of it was detained) the town needed to pull on resources from the neighboring community. Students, faculty, and staff at Luther College–located just 25 miles from Postville–responded to that call. Upwards of 50 to 60 students were around in the first few days–even as they were in the middle of final exams! Many of them responded because of the relationships they had with people in Postville and the community, a place that had provided them with great friendships, culture, food, and an experiment in the possibility of a different vision for rural America. Others responded to what they saw as an incredible injustice to the people who worked so hard to provide for their families and provide a needed service to our community. Over the years we have been articulate about the importance of building relationships with others through our educational process and our ministry. I could say that some of that bore fruit in the response of the community. In very practical ways, we identified a couple of faculty/staff folks from the college to help in recruiting and organizing volunteers. We sought to try to match needs with skills and gifts. It was a rag-tag team of us, responding without a lot of experience, and yet we did what we could!
Visit the website of the upcoming documentary abUSed. By weaving together the personal stories of the individuals, the families, and the town directly affected by the events of May 12, 2008, the film presents the human face of the issue of immigration reform and serves as a cautionary tale against abuses of constitutional human rights.