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Immigration raid leaves damaging mark on Postville, Iowa

A year after the crackdown of at a kosher meatpacking plant, the town is struggling with the bankrupt business, unemployment and high anxiety.

May 12, 2009|Antonio Olivo

POSTVILLE, IOWA — A hodgepodge crowd gathers here twice a week for handouts just steps from City Hall and an empty kosher deli.

Outside the local food pantry snakes a line of Guatemalans wearing court-ordered ankle monitors, imported workers from the Pacific island of Palau and unemployed town natives -- almost all there because of a dramatic raid that has left a deep mark in the way the U.S. views and deals with illegal immigration.

Since federal helicopters raced over cornfields on May 12, 2008, en route to arresting 389 illegal workers at a sprawling kosher meatpacking plant, what was a center of commerce in northeastern Iowa teeters toward collapse as the plant sputters in bankruptcy, its managers face prison time and the town fights to stay solvent.

Since the landmark raid, an economic squeeze has destroyed several businesses. Postville's population has shrunk by nearly half, to about 1,800 residents, and townsfolk say the resulting anxiety -- felt from the deli to the schoolyard -- has been relentless.

"It's like you're in an oven and there's no place to go and there's no timer to get you out," said former Mayor Robert Penrod, who, overwhelmed, resigned earlier this year.

The aftermath of the Postville raid has rippled across the country, rupturing the nation's kosher meat supply and setting back Midwest livestock farmers who supplied the plant. While advocates of stricter immigration laws argue that towns like Postville shouldn't be allowed to grow so dependent on illegal labor, critics see the raid as a symbol of greater problems with U.S. enforcement. And the fallout has helped spur changes in federal policy.

Last month, the Obama administration issued enforcement guidelines that place more emphasis on prosecuting employers rather than illegal workers. Then last week, in a ruling with clear echoes of the Postville raid, the U.S. Supreme Court required federal prosecutors to prove that someone using a fake ID knew it belonged to a real person before pursuing identity theft charges. Many of the Postville workers were charged with that crime, but they chose to leave the country instead of facing jail time.

"Postville is a stain on our judicial system," said David Leopold, a vice president of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Assn., who argued that the plant workers were unfairly coerced and deprived of adequate legal protections.

In Postville, many resent being in the spotlight. Yet they are frustrated that more hasn't been done to offset the unanticipated damage.

When the meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors Inc., opened in the late 1980s, Orthodox Jews arrived to work as kosher butchers and envisioned a rural paradise for new synagogues and shuls. Migrants, mostly from Guatemala, began arriving in the 1990s -- creating an ethnic stew with natives of mostly Eastern European descent.

After the raid, the family-like community of high school football game gatherings and homey weekend meals inside cafes began to unravel.

Agriprocessors has gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is up for sale with no apparent buyer. After the arrests, the plant recruited Somali refugees from Minneapolis, unemployed laborers from Detroit and then migrants from Palau, whose natives are allowed to work in the U.S. under a 1993 compact. Many of the latter stayed only briefly before leaving, unhappy with their jobs, officials said.

Meanwhile, dozens of Guatemalan women who were arrested and temporarily released by federal officials to care for their children remain in town with pending court cases but unable to work. Nearly all the arrested men were deported.

"We walk on the streets, and the Americans see us as criminals," said Maria Gomez, 31, at a Catholic church where she and others receive assistance, including help treating physical problems from their clunky ankle monitors.

Former City Councilman Aaron Goldsmith, an Orthodox rabbi, fumed over the damage. "We still haven't done anything about illegal immigration" in the state, he said. "All we've done is devastate northeastern Iowa."

Many Orthodox Jews also were severely affected by the raid, as businesses that fed off Agriprocessors closed and families moved away, Goldsmith said.

A state trial against the plant managers is set for August; and a federal trial, set for September, includes charges of bank fraud and 9,311 labor violations.

Roy Beck, head of the Washington-based NumbersUSA group that advocates for reducing immigration, argued that Postville invited its problems by relying so heavily on a plant many suspected was violating labor and immigration laws.

"The situation should have never gotten to that point," he said. "If you don't enforce the laws steadily, then when you suddenly enforce them, there is more collateral damage."

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aolivo@tribune.com

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