Jon Tevlin: Immigration raid's trauma is slow to heal in Iowa town

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 8, 2009 - 10:54 PM

It was one of the more surreal moments in my reporting career. I had been in town for only a couple of hours, but I had already been warned not to go into a bar on Main Street because I might be stabbed.

A distraught woman, standing in a long food-shelf line, told me she'd been fired from her job after asking for medications to help with her mental illness. Across the street, women in colorful Guatemalan dresses walked around with court-ordered ankle bracelets.

Then a woman named Josephina Ortiz, a native of California, approached me. "Please God, somebody help us," she said. "There's something bad in this town. I don't know how this can happen in the United States of America."

Ortiz, who had come to Postville, Iowa, for a job in the wake of the massive immigration raid in May 2008, was living out of her car. She said she'd been lied to about the pay at the Agriprocessors meat plant by recruiters and, after paying rent to an unscrupulous landlord, found the apartment unlivable.

The police and city services were overburdened. There was no homeless shelter. With every Greyhound bus came more workers to replace the 300 immigrants who had been arrested. Some new workers were criminals, some were just desperate people looking for a better-paying job.

It has been 15 months since that raid, and Postville continues to evolve. The owners of the kosher plant now face hundreds of criminal charges. The plant has new owners, and is trying to recover. Several groups of workers have come and gone, unable to tolerate the difficult work.

In a couple of weeks, three people who have been close to the scene will publish a book, "Postville, U.S.A.," which takes a nuanced, sobering look at the town that became a national petri dish for issues that make people's neck veins bulge: immigration, workers' rights, animal rights and diversity.

The authors are Mark Grey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa, Michele Devlin, a professor of public health, and Aaron Goldsmith, a former city council member in Postville.

It's impossible to find a middle ground on immigration, or a solution that won't have massive unintended consequences. But everyone I talked with in two trips to Postville agreed on two things: Our current system is broken, and raids, while they catch people illegally and in the case of Postville uncovered allegedly rampant crimes, have a ripple effect that doesn't discriminate between the innocent and guilty.

"Twenty percent of the town was arrested," Grey said. "Stores and restaurants closed. Churches and schools suffered. People didn't have anywhere to sell their cattle or chickens. The feds spent millions of dollars on the raid, but they didn't give one dime to the city to take care of people left behind afterwards."

There were even national implications, as a kosher meat shortage pushed up prices.

The police have been busy

Before the raid, Grey said, the town averaged only six arrests and 11 disturbance calls a month. Crime rose enough that Postville police had to add shifts and get help from other departments.

Saying he's "an immigrant advocate, but I live in the real world," Grey said that as news of Postville spread, everyone used it as an example of whatever political viewpoint they were pushing, whether it was to loosen immigration or kick out every illegal immigrant. While the "diversity industry," which the authors cite as being overly naive, used the town as its success story, the raids permitted others to cite Postville as proof that diverse people can't get along.

"I think diversity can work, but it's really hard," Grey said.

Goldsmith still owns a business in town. "I vote with my feet, and I'm still here because I want to be," he said. "For all the crazy things that went on in this town, it's been pretty resilient, and that speaks well for the majority of people here."

That resiliency was evident when some residents draped a banner on the Agriprocessors water tower recently.

It read: "Postville: Hometown of Hope."

jon.tevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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