A Year without a Mexican

Published on
by
Mother Jones

A Year without a Mexican

by
Marcelo Ballvé

It all began with the whir and flicker of helicopters on May 12, 2008, an incongruous sound in a tiny Iowa town tucked amid cornfields. All over Postville, people craned their necks from orderly lawns, phones rang, and gossip flew. Reverend Stephen Brackett, the town's Lutheran pastor, was on his day off and didn't hear the helicopters at first, but when his church secretary called to tell him something unusual was happening, he at once suspected what it was. For years, there were rumors that the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant at the edge of town was under scrutiny by immigration authorities. Later that morning, Brackett's wife called with confirmation: She'd spotted two helicopters and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in jackets and flak vests down by the slaughterhouse.

Brackett quickly drove to the hulking plant, which had been cordoned off by scores of ICE agents, state troopers, and sheriff's deputies. The authorities soon began to emerge from the building escorting workers, hundreds in all, and many in shackles. Mostly Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, they were loaded onto white buses emblazoned with the Homeland Security logo, and taken away for detention and trial. Watching from the safety of his car, the bespectacled, redheaded pastor knew the day would mark a low point in Postville's history. "It's like saying we'll take the 15-plus years of progress that we've made trying to gel this community together," Brackett told me, "and overnight we'll throw that away."

Indeed, the 389 arrests eliminated more than one-third of the meatpacker's workforce and nearly one-fifth of the town's population. It also prompted an exodus of hundreds more Hispanic residents who were either afraid of being targeted or simply opted to escape the town's inevitable tailspin. Postville's businesses began to suffer almost immediately. Even the Wal-Mart in Decorah, a half-hour away, called Postville mayor Robert Penrod with concerns about the economic impact. Penrod, who stepped down as mayor this month, can recall an eerie calm settling over the town, as though it were part of some Twilight Zone episode. "Before, it was all hustle bustle, and you'd see people walking up and down the streets and driving and listening to music," he told me. "Then all of a sudden, boom! I mean nobody was walking the streets."

Harder to quantify, but no less real, was the damage to an unusual multicultural experiment in America's heartland. It had begun back in 1987 when ultra-Orthodox Jews came to Postville to turn the defunct Hygrade plant into the nation's largest kosher meatpacker, which promptly became a beacon for immigrant labor. Postville proudly dubbed itself "Hometown to the World," and despite the company's recent attempts to recruit legal replacement workers from as far away as Palau, the motto has acquired an ironic ring. Ten months after the raid, the meatpacker, having declared bankruptcy, was operating at half-steam with a ragtag assembly of workers, and the town's economy remains a shambles. Back in October, Mayor Penrod told CNN that Postville was living a "freaky nightmare." And it still isn't over.

Postville's troubles reflect the collateral damage wrought by an escalation in workplace sweeps over the past several years. As part of a comprehensive multiyear strategy to increase interior enforcement, ICE sought to eliminate the "jobs magnet" that attracts undocumented immigrants from across the border.

The agency reported 5,184 workplace arrests in fiscal 2008, more than seven times the 2004 figure. Its raids have included others on the scale of Postville—sweeps resulting in the dislocation of entire immigrant communities. Last October, ICE arrested 330 workers at the Columbia Farms poultry plant in Greenville, South Carolina. That came on the heels of a massive sweep of Howard Industries, an electronics maker in Laurel, Mississippi, where agents netted some 600 workers. The year before, 300 employees were picked up at a Massachusetts leather manufacturer, and raids in late 2006 on Swift meatpacking plants in Nebraska and five other states led to 1,300 arrests.

These high-profile busts, former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff explained, were meant to remove incentives to illegal immigration. "What is the economic magnet that is bringing people into the country to work illegally? The answer is jobs," he said at a press briefing last February. The magnet metaphor was no accident. In the view of the immigration bureaucracy, these factories comprise a mosaic of magnets that lure the undocumented from poor countries. Because the raids inevitably get big play in Spanish-language media, ICE officials know their get-tough approach will reach its intended audience—on both sides of the border.

The tactic would seem to have little chance of surviving in the current presidency were there not some evidence that it has worked. Since 2005, according to an October report by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of people entering the country illegally has declined to about 500,000 a year, on average, from about 800,000 during the four previous years. While the faltering US economy—particularly in housing and construction—has certainly contributed, politically powerful immigration foes credit the ICE raids for turning the tide.

To be sure, on the campaign trail, then-candidate Obama derided the workplace raids as publicity stunts. Speaking to an anchor from the Spanish-language Univision TV network, he said he would focus on targeting exploitative employers and promised to act on comprehensive immigration reform. But on February 24, one month after President Obama took office, ICE raided an engine factory in Bellingham, Washington, where agents arrested 28 undocumented workers.

Facing criticism from the left, new Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano promised an investigation, insisting she hadn't known of the raid in advance. Whatever becomes of that probe, last month's raid underscores the difficulty of navigating between opponents of heavy-handed enforcement and immigration foes who agitate about undocumented foreigners taking American jobs—an old argument that could gain new appeal as hundreds of thousands of workers receive pink slips.

Supposing ICE's strategy is indeed effective; there's a separate question policymakers may want to ponder: How have these raids affected the communities involved? The woes of the arrested immigrants are well documented: families torn apart, workers caught in bureaucratic limbo or slapped with souped-up identity-theft charges. But less examined are the impacts on towns and cities that the workers and their families leave behind, and on the Americans whose lives and livelihoods were intertwined with those of the newcomers.

Like many Midwestern communities, Postville was historically at the mercy of the up-and-down agricultural economy. Locals here haven't forgotten the dark 1980s, when a farm crisis plunged families into debt and set the stage for a bloodletting of population from rural America. As Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Cougar Mellencamp tried to drum up support with the Farm Aid concerts beginning in 1985, places like Postville were dying. Adding insult to injury, big-box retailers were gnawing at Main Street business. Small cafés, sporting-goods stores, and meat lockers were going extinct, not to mention general stores—those Midwestern institutions with their pickle barrels, rough wooden floors, and panned candy on the counter.

Pastor Brackett remembers visiting town in the 1980s with his wife, Susan—a Postville native—and seeing the same houses for sale year after year. "It seemed like every time we came to visit, either another mainstay of the business community had closed or there were rumors that they were going to close," he said.

Postville's revival began with the 1987 reopening of the old meatpacking plant, shuttered since the 1970s. Its new operators were members of a Hasidic Jewish sect known as Lubavitchers. Founder Aaron Rubashkin, a Brooklyn butcher, quickly built Agriprocessors—just "Agri" to the locals—into the nation's largest kosher meatpacker, origin of brands like Aaron's Best, Rubashkin's, and Supreme Kosher. At its peak, Agri controlled 60 percent of the kosher beef market and 40 percent of kosher chicken sales.

At first, the production lines were manned largely by undocumented Eastern European and Russian immigrants, writes Stephen Bloom, an Iowa journalist and author of a book called Postville: a Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. But as the Ukranians, Kazakhstanis, and Russians drifted away, Agri came to rely on a ready supply of Hispanic labor. Postville became a destination for villagers from rural Guatemalan and Mexican hamlets like El Barril, San Miguel Dueñas, and Aldea del Rosario, where word soon spread of job opportunities in an Iowa town with superficial similarities to their own tight-knit rural communities.

The meatpacker expanded, and by the time of the raid boasted nearly 1,000 employees. Rabbis supervised the slaughter and Lubavitch managers oversaw the business end, while white Iowans found jobs as administrative staffers or floor-level supervisors. But the bulk of the bloody work was done by Guatemalans and Mexicans who processed tens of thousands of chickens, thousands of turkeys, and hundreds of cattle daily. (The Agri arrest figures would have been far higher, in fact, had night-shift workers been present for the raid.)

Before long, the Hispanic influx was revitalizing Postville. By 2001, Reverend Paul Ouderkirk over at St. Bridget's Catholic Church was celebrating a Saturday mass in Spanish and had created a Hispanic ministry to cater to immigrants' spiritual needs. Several Protestant evangelical congregations also sprouted up to accommodate the workers, meeting in halls lent by the Presbyterians or Lutherans.

Still more conspicuous were the changes downtown. A Mexican grocery and restaurant called Sabor Latino opened at Postville's main intersection. A Guatemalan restaurant opened up just a few doors down from a kosher deli, while across the street, El Vaquero stocked everything from Spanish-language movies and music to cowboy boots, soccer jerseys, prayer candles, and Vero Elotes—Mexican corncob lollipops sprinkled with chili powder.

The workers also brought new energy to the school district, which created bilingual programs and built new facilities even as schools in surrounding towns were consolidating due to shrinking enrollment. Local landlords began charging $450 to $750 for homes and apartments, rates unheard of in Northeast Iowa. A few new apartment complexes sprung up, expanding the town's footprint, and property values soared.

There were growing pains, too. The first wave of workers was mainly single men, given to drunken binges on weekends. That led to brawls at the local bar, Club 51, hit-and-runs, DUIs, and rumors of gang activity. But as solo men were joined by women and children from home, things quieted down. By the time of the raid, whole extended family clans had relocated to Postville. "God knows, all we did here was work," said 32-year-old Veronica Cumez, who came here from Guatemala in 2005 with her eldest daughter, joining five brothers-in-law and a nephew working at the plant. "We were grateful for the opportunity."

As a rule, the immigrants' priorities—family, work, religion—dovetailed with those of the townspeople, who were thankful for Postville's return to normalcy. A sense of stability, even moderate prosperity, began to envelop the town. The immigrants, and the money they spent, brought "a taste of the good life," said Jeff Abbas, the bearded, Marlboro-smoking operations manager at local public radio station KPVL. "Small towns in the Midwest, especially this part of the Midwest, don't do well economically. They hang on, but that's about it. Postville was doing pretty well."

Then ICE came, and everything changed. When I arrived in Postville a few weeks after the raid, local businesses were already hurting, particularly those catering to the immigrants. El Vaquero, six years in operation, was on the edge; three months later, it was boarded up. The Guatemalan restaurant remained open, but was mostly empty, even at lunchtime; to make ends meet, its owner had a side business shuttling panicked immigrants to Chicago, where they could catch direct flights to Guatemala City.

At a clothing store called Lily's, owner Tomás Hernández watched Spanish-language television to stave off boredom as he waited for customers who were few and far between. When business was good, Hernández said, he was doing $1,000 a week, but sales were down at least 85 percent since the raid. "I'm going to see what happens, but if there's no change in three or four months, I'll have no choice but to close," he told me.

Landlords, meanwhile, had to reckon with suddenly empty units. Many were collecting their remaining tenants' rent checks from Sister Mary McCauley, a Catholic nun and treasurer of a multidenominational fundraising effort to help families whose breadwinners had been arrested. The money was also supporting some 40 arrestees, mostly women, whom ICE had released with ankle-bracelet monitors so they could care for their children while awaiting court dates. The women could neither work nor leave the state, and they had no way to pay their bills.

Agri's managers were scrambling to maintain even a single shift. To avoid a production collapse, the company temporarily brought in Native American workers from its Nebraska plant, and contracted with staffing firms to trawl far and wide for legal workers. Prospective hires were bussed in from as far away as Texas, where many had been recruited at homeless shelters. Among them was Diana Morris, who accepted a three-day Greyhound bus trip to Postville, but balked after being told she'd have to live in a house with 10 male workers, lacking running water or electricity. She went on KPVL to plead publicly for help in covering the cost of a ticket back to Texas.

The desperate company even reached out to Palau, a Pacific island nation whose 21,000 residents can work legally in the United States due to Palau's former status as a US protectorate. The first Palauans arrived in September 2008, and before long there were as many as 170 Micronesian islanders in Postville. KPVL's Abbas was so blown away by this surreal prospect that he rewrote lyrics to the Gilligan's Island theme: Who wants to live on a tropical isle / Just like our predecessors / When we can go to Postville Land / And work for Agriprocessors? / We do have one small question, though / And it deals with a matter of fact / If we want to leave our position there / How the hell will we get back?

It was a modest attempt to squeeze humor from a situation that has longtime residents fuming. Their anger is directed not just at Agri's management—which seems content merely to get warm bodies into the plant, impact on the town be damned—but also toward the feds, who spent millions on the raid and then left the town holding the ball.

By the time I returned to Postville last September, things were worse than ever. Agri was facing state and federal investigations related to immigration violations, safety issues, and child labor, a situation that had even caught Obama's attention the previous month. "They have kids in there wielding buzz saws and cleavers," he said during an Iowa campaign stop. "It's ridiculous." Embarrassed by the scandal, orthodox Jewish organizations cited Agri as an example of why kosher certification needed to account for workplace conditions.

The empty storefronts of the 1980s, meanwhile, had returned to downtown in earnest. El Vaquero and the Guatemalan restaurant were history. And Elmer Herrera, the 48-year-old owner of the town's Hispanic bakery, told me he planned to sell; the raids cut his business in half, he said. Herrera, fortunately, had a side gig working at a hog farm outside town, and also hosted a Latin music show on KPVL. In many ways, he exemplifies the way some newcomers have fully integrated into Postville's social fabric. A dozen years ago, Herrera arrived here from Guatemala to work for Agri. Now he was a business owner with a second job, a radio gig, a Midwestern wife, and the intent to spend the rest of his life in Iowa.

But Herrera was also among those who believed Agriprocessors' days were numbered. "All the symptoms are there," he told me, sitting in KPVL's control room during a break. "The owners are just getting what they can out of the plant while they can, and soon they'll sell or declare bankruptcy and get out of town."

In a conversation the previous month, New York-based Agriprocessors spokesman Menachem Lubinsky had denied this possibility but admitted to me that the embattled company was having trouble replacing its stable Hispanic workforce. Some of the employees brought in to replace those arrested "did not work out," he said.

In addition to the Palauans, the company recruited Somalis—mostly from Minneapolis—who can also work legally due to their refugee status. One Friday afternoon during my visit, groups of Somalis walked about Postville's downtown, mingling with black Americans recruited from the South and Midwest and Mexican Americans from Texas. The plant was closed for the Sabbath, and the inebriated payday scene felt more Bourbon Street than Main Street. One worker, spotting his supervisor pulling into the bank in his pickup, yelled drunkenly down the block and managed to cajole a $10 advance through the driver's window.

Over at Club 51, workers crowded elbow-to-elbow at the long bar under a sign reading "Hunters Welcome." Outside, bumming cigarettes in the rain, 39-year-old Marcus Valdez pondered his first three weeks in Postville. He'd come here from Belmont, Texas, with his wife and two kids, and he spoke in a thick drawl. As a kid, Valdez told me, he had slaughtered hogs on his father's farm, so he felt suited to the work trimming turkey carcasses. "I feel proud when the supervisors walk by and see me cutting right," he said.

On the face of it, he's just the sort of worker Agri might have hung a recovery on, but Valdez was already disgruntled. So far he'd seen no money; the company had deducted his $475-a-month rent and security deposit from his first few paychecks. Agri also shorted him a buck on the hourly wage promised by recruiters in Amarillo—plant managers told him the probationary wage would be $9.35, not the $10 to $11 he expected. Given his skills, Valdez didn't think that was fair.

As we talked, it grew louder and rowdier inside the bar. Later, while waiting for the commode, I saw a fistfight nearly break out among three men, one of whom had been peddling baggies of marijuana. Postville's police chief, Michael Halse, has complained publicly about higher crime since the raid—including a double stabbing last July involving three former Agri employees. Halse hired three new part-time officers—every weekend, squad cars linger outside Club 51, awaiting the inevitable brawl.

This rough-and-tumble crowd frightens the townspeople. Even some of Agri's former workers are cowed. María Laura Gómez, a Guatemalan detained in the raid, tells me she'll leave Postville if she can swing a deal to escape deportation by cooperating with federal investigators looking into Agri. "It's gotten ugly," she says. "I don't like living here anymore."

On November 4, true to Herrera's prediction, Agriprocessors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The week before that, top Agri officials, including Sholom Rubashkin—the founder's son and one-time chief operating officer—were charged with federal immigration violations and fraud. And now the meatpacker is on the block; an Israeli suitor balked on its $40 million bid in February, leaving Agri with a mountain of unpaid debts, so the court scheduled an auction for March 23. Postville residents fear that the plant will be bought and pillaged for usable assets, leaving the town, once again, without a lifeline. (Likewise, locals of Laurel, Mississippi, fret over rumors that Howard Industries, their town's top employer, may outsource manufacturing to China or Mexico—a potential development that many view as an economic death sentence.)

Critics of ICE's hardball tactics, while grateful that the raid exposed serious labor abuses at Agriprocessors, accuse the immigration authorities of badly mismanaging the aftermath. To be sure, ICE has neutralized Swift and Agri and Howard Industries as illegal-immigrant magnets, but so, too, has it neutered the economies that came to depend on them. And even fans of this tough-guy strategy tend to agree that without systemic reform, there will be no end to our illegal-immigration issues.

In the meantime, dozens of ex-workers still walk around Postville in ankle bracelets, unable to earn a living, making the town something of an open-air prison. Some of them are witnesses in state and federal cases against Agri. Why, residents ask themselves over and over, should local institutions bear all the financial and social costs? "It's outrageous," said Sol Varisco, who works with refugees and immigrants for Catholic Charities at the Des Moines diocese. "Is this how we enforce the law? Leave the churches and nonprofits to pick up the pieces?"

Marcelo Ballvé is a contributing editor at New America Media and a fellow of the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism.

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