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Postville Marks Immigration Raid Anniversary with Reflection, Optimism

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of what at the time was the largest-ever single site immigration raid in the United States. Postville, Iowa is still recovering from the arrest and deportation of hundreds of Hispanic slaughterhouse workers and the closure of the town's largest employer. Although the community has faced many difficulties over the past 12 months, there's a great sense of optimism about its future.

A day of remembering

The day began with the ringing of church bells 389 times. That's how many suspected illegal immigrants were arrested at the slaughterhouse on May 12, 2008. Most of them were from Guatemala and another large percentage was from Mexico. They were all deported or detained, but about 60 of their family members were allowed to remain in Postville.

The workers were employed by Agriprocessors, which was then producing about half of the nation's kosher beef and chicken. The company filed for bankruptcy last fall and the search continues for a buyer. Currently, the plant is operating only one shift per day instead of three.

Postville has lost an estimated one-third of its population. Long-time local attorney Matt Erickson says the impact is visible in many ways. The town's popular Mexican restaurant remains open, but it is much quieter. And he says there is no longer any trouble finding a parking space right in front of it or any other main street business.

"As time went by, you could see some of the businesses suffering. I think a lot of the businesses also were greatly affected - probably even more so - by Agriprocessors filing bankruptcy than they were by the raid."

A chance to start over

While the events of a year ago were a disaster for the town, they also presented an opportunity for change.

"With Agri[processors] for sale, we now have the opportunity to start over, and do it right this time," Postville Mayor Leigh Rekow told a packed anniversary rally news conference. "It may not sell. But if not for the raid, the opportunity to make good changes may not have happened. There is money lost and money owed. But we are a strong community, and we will work our way together through this."

Former Postville City Council member Aaron Goldsmith is often a spokesman for the Jewish community here. He says the town is suffering through what he calls "the double trouble" of the problems with the meatpacker and the economy in general, but that it is rebuilding.

"This year, we were just economically [battered] by the raid and the economy," he observes. "But I see that once we have clarity about a new owner, I think it'll instill confidence and the town can grow forward."

A community pulls together to help those in need

Goldsmith and Mayor Rekow are both members of a coalition of government church and business leaders which has been working on the rebuilding of the town's economy. The group's current chairman, Presbyterian pastor Gary Catterson, says the community is proud of how it has handled its difficulties and helped the immigrant families. He echoes a familiar theme when he points out that social and economic impact of the raid and its aftermath continue to be felt in Postville and the surrounding area.

"The past year has been one of great upheaval for individuals, for families and for the entire community," he says, but notes, "The challenges of the past year have also brought out the best in people as community members have come together to care for those in need."

The Postville food pantry continues to serve about 150 people per week and local churches have paid rent and utility bills for jobless families, including wives and children of the deported workers.

The bankruptcy of the Agriprocessors plant and the economic slowdown have also hurt the local government. City Clerk Darcy Radloff says unpaid tax bills could lead to cuts in the city's police department and have already forced them to put plans for a new recreational trail back on the shelf.

"And we know that if things don't get turned around with Agri[processors] and if people don't start coming back into this community and moving into those vacant homes and paying those property taxes, we're going to be really struggling here in a year to maintain the city services that we provide to people."

Looking ahead

Organizers of the anniversary prayer vigil at St. Bridget's Catholic Church say they had two goals in mind: to show solidarity for the immigrant workers and to call attention to what they see as a need for changes in U.S. immigration law.

Iowa's Democratic Senator Tom Harkin issued a statement commending Postville for helping the families of those who were arrested in the raid. Senator Harkin also said he salutes the administration of President Barack Obama for announcing recently that the Department of Homeland Security will re-focus its worksite enforcement on employers who hire illegal immigrants, rather than on the workers.