POSTVILLE, Iowa - If there is an epicenter in the shifting, emotionally charged debate over U.S. immigration policy, it is here, amid some of the richest soil on Earth.
That alluvial black dirt nurtures corn, beef cattle, chickens and turkeys, which require massive slaughterhouses. And that in turn nurtures a lively trade in the illegal immigrants willing to work in them.
All that ended in Postville a year ago today, when two government helicopters and some 900 immigration agents descended on this town of 2,200 and rounded up nearly 400 illegal immigrants working at a nearby meatpacking plant.
Believed to be the second-largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history, it cost taxpayers $5.2 million, according to one estimate; it terrified workers and their families; and it left economic devastation in its wake.
“I am not angry at the people who do not want us here,” said a weeping Nohemi Hurtado, who is from Mexico and earned $7.50 an hour cleaning the hair from beef carcasses at nearby Agriprocessors. “It is their country, but I just ask God that I can stay.”
Hurtado and the others — mostly Guatemalans — were prosecuted for violating U.S. immigration laws, then scheduled for what the government now calls “removal.”
“I am disturbed that local religious leaders in Postville seem to think it is immoral to arrest people who violated federal laws,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that believes in limiting immigration.
Beck said he believed the detainees were being treated humanely despite claims from local religious leaders to the contrary.
While the raid answered the prayers of millions of Americans on the anti-immigration side of the debate, it fed the passions of millions of others who are lobbying for leniency toward undocumented workers.
Indeed, Obama administration officials are now pushing a national immigration policy that will target the employers who hire and sometimes abuse illegal immigrants, more than the illegal immigrants themselves.
“Postville will one day be remembered as a dark chapter in U.S. history that served as a catalyst for reforming our nation’s immigration system into something we can take pride in again,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonpartisan, pro-immigrant advocacy group in Washington.
Whether that reform will ultimately lead to amnesty for the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States, or guest worker programs for those who follow, remains to be seen.
But either way — as with most preceding swings in U.S. immigration policy — the question is more likely to be decided by politics and passion than by economics and common sense, observers say.
Ever since the raid, pro-immigration groups, including the Catholic church and other religious and political lobbies, have used it to illustrate what they argue is the basic unfairness of punishing illegal immigrants seeking a better life.
To make their point, today they are staging a prayer vigil, news conferences, a blessing for the town and a symbolic march to the Agriprocessors plant.
“We are working hard to raise the national consciousness about the devastation of this raid,” said Sister Mary McCauley. “We are calling for complete immigration reform and an end to the raids. … We can never be proud of what happened here.”
Some 50 other rallies are planned in cities nationwide, including one at noon in Kansas City’s Washington Park, across the street from an office building where immigration court is held.
But the Postville plant, which produced kosher meat products, hardly escaped the government crackdown unscathed. It is operating under the supervision of a bankruptcy conservator, who is looking for a buyer.
“We now have the opportunity to start over and do it right this time,” said Postville Mayor Leigh Rekow.
The New York-based owners of the plant, which is still operating at reduced capacity, also have been prosecuted for alleged violations of civil rights and labor laws.
Employers don’t like current policies any better than the workers do, said Mira Mdivani of the Mdivani Law Firm in Overland Park, which represents employers.
“The only reason employers hire illegals is because there’s no way to hire them otherwise,” she said, adding: “There’s simply no legal category of visa available for nonskilled or semiskilled nonseasonal labor.”
Employers have been put in a near-impossible legal position, Mdivani argues. But others say the legal hammer fell hardest on the workers themselves, some of whom spent five months in detention.
Of the nearly 400 arrested, 290 already have been deported, some leaving family members behind. Many of the remaining workers are unemployed and unable to leave. Some have requested visas contingent on their willingness to help the government prosecute the company for various offenses.
But too many who were allegedly victimized, including women who say they were sexually harassed at the plant, already have been deported, said Sonia Parras Konrad, an Iowa lawyer representing some of the workers.
“In our urgency to punish people here … we missed a lot of people who were victimized and who could have been extraordinarily helpful in the prosecution of the company,” Konrad said. “I hope the Obama administration can learn from what happened in Postville. We need to make sure our government screens these workers for potential victims and not be so quick to remove them.”
There had always been an uneasy coexistence between the Agriprocessors plant and Postville, which bills itself as “Hometown to the World.” Then in 1987, a group of Hasidic Jews purchased the non-kosher slaughterhouse and refurbished it according to Hasidic law.
Agriprocessors once employed as many as 900 workers, and over the years Postville saw an influx of workers, including Ukrainians, Russians, Mexicans, Filipinos and now Guatemalans.
Disagreements occasionally arose with Postville officials over taxes and other issues. But it was last year’s raid that crippled the town economically.
The deportations hit the rental and real estate markets hard, forced the closings of at least four Hispanic businesses and left several local companies holding debt from the now-bankrupt packing plant.
And there’s the human fallout, such as Hurtado and her 2-year-old daughter, Jocelyn.
Hurtado, 27, wears a GPS ankle bracelet that keeps track of her whereabouts. She is not allowed to work or leave Postville. She is unable to send money home to other family members. And since the raid, she and her daughter’s father have separated.
Food, clothing and health care for the detainees have cost St. Bridget’s Catholic Church as much as $80,000 a month, but the costs have gone down with only about 60 detainees remaining, according to church officials.
“My lawyer tells me my case is moving very slowly,” Hurtado said through an interpreter. “We are just thankful that people here can help us.”
The Star’s Dan Margolies contributed to this report.