The town of Postville, Iowa, population 2,000, has been turned into an open-air prison. Jerry Johnson, who works at nearby Luther College, called it something out of a bad science-fiction movie or the kind of thing a 1930s totalitarian regime might have cooked up.
"This was not only a grievous injustice but a shame on the state of Iowa and the federal government," said Mr. Johnson. "These were good, decent people who were also the most defenseless."
On May 12, immigration officials swooped in to arrest 400 undocumented workers from Mexico and Guatemala at the local meat-packing plant, a raid described as the biggest such action at a single site in U.S. history. The raid left 43 women, wives of the men who were taken away, and their 150 children without status or a means of support. The women cannot leave the town, and to make sure they do not they have been outfitted with leg monitoring bracelets.
"The women are effectively prisoners," said Father Paul Ouderkirk at St. Bridget's Roman Catholic Church. "The difference between them and anybody who is in jail is that in jail the government pays for them, but if they're on the streets we pay for them.
"What kind of a government makes prisoners of 43 mothers who all have children and then says, â€˜You can't work, you can't leave and can't stay?' That boggles the imagination."
A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the law does not provide for work authorization for illegals.
Since the raid, St. Bridget's, with a staff of four, has raised $500,000 to pay for rent, clothing, food and other necessities of life. Donations have come from other faith groups and individuals who have read about the raid.
Fr. Ouderkirk, who has spent 50 years as a priest and had been in retirement for five years, was called back to active duty by the parish when the crisis hit. "It is the most difficult, most challenging situation I have ever faced. And yet, strangely, the incident that has been most strengthening of my faith. It shows there are a lot of compassionate people because if there weren't, we wouldn't be able to do what we're doing."
He said the women and children were so terrified that they refused to go back to their apartments. They lived at the church during the first week after the raid.
Meanwhile, the men were taken to the National Cattle Congress building in Waterloo, Iowa, where immigration judges were on hand. They were charged and then sent to nine different prisons around the state. Fr. Ouderkirk said some of the men were deported and others are serving five-month prison terms for violating immigration laws - but he said no one ever explained why some were held and others sent home.
The men were all working at Agriprocessors, believed to be the largest kosher meat-packing plant in the world. Fr. Ouderkirk and others have said the plant was a disgrace that abused workers who had little understanding of their rights. He said conditions were dangerous, accidents were common and that workers were often forced to work extremely long hours. As well, he and others said the plant knew full well that many of their workers were undocumented.
The Iowa Labor Department's documents show there have been a number of safety and health issues. And last week, Iowa officials said they uncovered dozens of child-labour violations. No charges have been laid and the company called the allegations untrue.
The company said that since the raid, it has voluntarily gone to a more sophisticated electronic system to verify the documents of workers. It also said it was waiving rent for women living in company-owned apartments and making regular food contributions.
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The plant was founded more than 20 years ago and it brought to this small Iowa town - a place settled by Norwegian Lutheran farmers - a community of Hasidic Jews. Eventually more than 1,000 workers were hired, bringing the population of Postville up to 2,400 residents.
The story of two such dissimilar cultures living side by side attracted the attention of University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom, who wrote a book about the town called Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.
Prof. Bloom spent five years in the town doing research. He said it was inevitable that the plant would turn to undocumented workers because they were the only ones who would stay, and the locals were not interested in such gruesome work.
He also came to the conclusion that the Hasidic Jews did not make the best neighbours and were unwilling to co-operate with the rest of the town.
But Aaron Goldsmith disagrees with that assessment and thinks that many have made Agriprocessors the bogeyman in all this. Mr. Goldsmith, also a Hasidic Jew, does not work for Agriprocessors but runs his own business in the town. He came with his family 11 years ago from California and said they all fell in love with Postville.
He said at the beginning of the plant there was a clash of cultures, but much of that has settled down. He points to his own experience of being elected a city councilman, winning more than 60% of the vote. "And only 3% of the voters are Jews."
He calls the company a good corporate citizen that did its best to document its workers and make sure conditions were acceptable. He said the plant was rated above average for the industry in terms of safety. The plant brought enormous prosperity to the region, Mr. Goldsmith said, which improved the lives of everyone. He said the plant is also helping the women and children with food baskets and other assistance.
Even Fr. Ouderkirk, a huge critic of the company, said that with people coming because of the plant, all sorts of new businesses opened up. "Business was booming and life was good."
Mr. Goldsmith calls what the government did the height of hypocrisy. "They arbitrarily enforce a law when it's a well-known truth that there are millions of illegal workers. They could step into Los Angeles tomorrow and pick up a million people."
He said the raid looked like something out of the war in Afghanistan, with helicopters circling above. He does not understand why the government could not have sat down with the plant and tried to work something out.
Instead, he said, everyone got hurt: the families of the illegal workers, the townspeople who now have to deal with transient workers instead of family people, and the school board, which lost many students who were starting to integrate into the town.
After 40 years of being a priest, and two heart attacks and two open heart surgeries, Father Richard Gaul had hoped for a chance to reduce his stress levels. But after May 12 that idea went out the door. He said he understands that the people arrested were illegal, but he said they were also desperate.
"This was their last option. They would not have chosen this as their first option. They wanted to feed their families. Scripture tells us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, give shelter to the shelterless. If you and your family were starving, what would you do?"
© 2008 The National Post