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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 5:27 PM EDT

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. This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship, a program sponsored by the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism.

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