It was the second to last day of the 2017 RAGBRAI bike ride across Iowa when I rode my bike through Postville. I did not know about this tiny northeast Iowa town before, but my curiosity was raised when I heard buzz among the riders. As I walked my bike through town, I noticed ethnic restaurants as well as orthodox Jews walking the streets. That is not a normal scene in small town Iowa.
When I started asking questions, not having grown up in Iowa, the story unfolded. On May 12, 2008, Postville, population 2,273, advertising itself as “Hometown to the World,” was the place of the largest immigration raid of a single-site employer in US history. On May 12, students in the schools heard the sound of helicopters overhead and wondered what was happening. Was it simply the National Guard performing exercises or coming to recruit teenagers, or was it the worst nightmare of immigrants: the fear of deportation?
More than one thousand heavily armed ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and federal agents arrested 389 people, mostly Guatemalan, in a raid at Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat-packing plant in the world. Immigrants were handcuffed and bused to a makeshift prison at the National Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo where they were held pending adjudication. Most of the detainees were unaware that they needed Social Security numbers to work in the US and were charged with document fraud. They could plead guilty to one set of felony charges and receive five months in jail and deportation, or they could face the prospect of much more serious charges and a considerably longer jail term.
Hundreds of families were separated, and Postville lost 20% of its population overnight. The raid cost the United States five million dollars. Meanwhile, company officials were arrested for immigration violations, worker exploitation, and financial crimes. Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy, and the town’s major employer was shuttered five months after the raid. Sholom Rusbashkin, CEO of Agriprocessors, was convicted and served eight years of a 27-year sentence for bank fraud. His sentence was commuted in December 2017 by President Donald Trump.
This Friday, May 12, marks the tenth anniversary of the Postville raid and offers the opportunity to look back on this significant and defining event in the state. Most people outside of Iowa assume that there is little ethnic diversity in the state. They have visions of miles and miles of corn and soybean fields, huge cattle farms, and mostly white people driving trucks and tractors.
In a 2006 article by Stephen G. Bloom, a journalism teacher at the University of Iowa, “Immigration comes to the small-town Midwest,” he noted that 60 percent of graduates at UI leave the state because of a lack of opportunities. He also wrote that from 1980 to 1990, all but seven of Iowa’s 99 counties lost population, with many school districts consolidating. We find the same trend in The United Methodist Church, where it is no longer impossible for many rural churches to support full-time clergy or for county seat towns to maintain two or three United Methodist congregations.
In the past few decades, however, Iowa has experienced slow and steady growth, due in large part to immigrants moving to Iowa from other countries. Immigrants are often willing to work in low paying jobs that others do not want, including service industries and meat-packing plants.
Postville was one of those places. In 1987, Aaron Rubashkin, a Russian-born Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, decided to get into the business of mass producing kosher meat in Iowa. He purchased an abandoned slaughterhouse outside Postville, converted it into a processing plant, and hired 350 workers. Two of his sons were sent to oversee the plant, with Sholom Rubashkim becoming the CEO. By 2007, Agriprocessors was suppling 60% of kosher meat and 40% of kosher poultry in the US.
The Hometown to the World became a grand experiment in multi-culturalism. Many Jews relocated to work at Agriprocessors, and people from fifty nations also converged on Postville, with immigrants being given dangerous and the lowest paying slaughterhouse jobs in the nation. Postville was changed forever.
How did this tiny community learn to live together? Amazingly, Postville made great progress in creating a sustainable, multicultural community. With rapid changes in the global economy and traditional midwestern tolerance, residents of Postville were able to transcend ethnic, religious, and class differences.
Postville schools had students from more than thirty-five countries. People from many cultures worked together to address community concerns and organize events. Despite built-in segregators such as religion, food, and separate schools, Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of various ethnicities, and locals became neighbors and friends.
By attempting to build a tolerant respectful community, Postville became a model for diversity, despite occasional setbacks. The multicultural and popular Taste of Postville was intentionally designed to break down barriers between residents. A multilingual Postville radio station started, and the Postville Soccer League became an opportunity to have fun together.
Unfortunately, after the raid, the town fell apart. Businesses and restaurants were forced to close. Undocumented workers disappeared, which meant they were foreclosing on houses or not paying rent. And far fewer people were around to spend money in town. All this, as the recession of 2008 was beginning. The kosher slaughterhouse was bought by SHF Industries in 2009 as a meat-processing plant and was renamed Agristar.
Postville has come a long way in recovery with many Somali refugees now working legally and living in town. Why does Postville matter ten years later?
- Postville matters because it has become the poster child for the global themes of refugees, poor working conditions. and false promises. A multicultural and multireligious world is right outside our doorstep, no matter where we live.
- Postville matters because it reminds us that immigrants are human beings made in the image of God who deserve to be treated with respect and grace.
- Postville matters because ministries like Iowa Justice for our Neighbors can provide legal immigration resources for individuals and families who have no other place to turn for help. After the raid, eight local faith communities came together through the Decorah JFON clinic to assist immigrants still living in Postville through the Path to Citizenship.
- Postville matters because wherever diversity exists, even in small numbers, training is necessary around language, health care, teachers, law enforcement, and churches.
- Postville matters because last month, on April 5, 2018, an immigration raid at a meat packing plant in rural Morristown, Tennessee resulted in the detention of 97 people. More than five hundred children missed school the next day. It was the largest workplace immigration raid since Postville.
- Postville matters because we are all called to demonstrate bold resolve by championing the rights of immigrants, respecting and defending their inherent dignity, and welcoming their many contributions to our neighborhoods, towns, and to our society. “
On Friday, May 11, the 10th anniversary of the federal immigration raid will be observed in Postville. Organizers of the event say it will be a time to remember the 389 people who were arrested on May 12, 2008, “as a summons to challenge current anti-immigrant rhetoric and behaviors and to unite in demanding just, humane and comprehensive immigration reform.”
The day will begin with a 10 a.m. interfaith prayer service at St. Bridget Catholic Church, followed by a noon rally at Meyer Park, close to the site of raid. Postville matters.