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A Year Without a Mexican

Undocumented workers were the economic lifeblood of small towns like Postville, Iowa—until the immigration cops showed up.

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 6:27 PM EDT

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.

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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.

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