POSTVILLE, Iowa—A group of Jewish boys in yarmulkes and winter coats walked past the "Taste of Mexico" restaurant on Lawler Street last week on their way home from school. Minutes later, a Somali man wearing a keffiyeh scarf around his neck passed by, perhaps on his way to the town's makeshift mosque on Main Street.
This improbably diverse rural town of about 2,000 people in northeastern Iowa suffered a near-fatal shock more than three years ago when a federal immigration raid scooped up 20 percent of its population in a single day. An ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Jewish family from Brooklyn bought the town's defunct meatpacking plant in 1987 and attracted workers from Israel, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. The plant became the largest producer of kosher beef in the world. When the plant was raided one spring morning in May 2008, most of the workers on shift were Guatemalan and Mexican, and undocumented. Many workers later said they had been physically or sexually abused at the plant, and at least 57 minors were illegally employed there, some as young as 13.
Six months later, the plant shut down abruptly. Sholom Rubashkin, the chief executive, was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. The national and local news media documented the near-demise of the town that followed, as businesses were shuttered overnight and hundreds of homes abandoned. The town shrank to nearly half its former size, as many of the illegal immigrants who were not netted in the raid left out of fear or because they couldn't find a job.
Immigration is one of the most contentious issues facing the Republican presidential candidates as they prepare for Saturday's debate in Des Moines, sponsored by Yahoo! and ABC News. Earlier this year, Rick Perry's candidacy suffered because of his support for allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities in Texas. Last month, Newt Gingrich struck a moderate tone on the subject, saying, "I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century." Other candidates say Perry and Gingrich support policies that amount to amnesty for people who have broken the law. Yahoo News visited Postville to examine what immigration looks like in the Republican presidential campaign's first battleground state, one that is 90 percent white but that has outposts like Postville that are changing the state's ethnic makeup and driving its population growth. Though still less than 4 percent of the population, Iowa's foreign-born population increased by 159 percent between 1990 and 2008, while the native-born population increased by only 5.7 percent.
Today, the meatpacking plant, under new ownership, uses the federal e-verify system to check workers' immigration status. The hourly wage on the poultry line is higher than it was before the raid, but few Iowan-born locals work there. Ridding this small community of its illegal workforce, far from freeing up jobs for American-born citizens, has resulted in closed businesses and fewer opportunities. Even nearly four years later, many homes still remain empty, and taxable retail sales are about 40 percent lower than they were in 2008.
In order to staff its still low-paying jobs with legal immigrants, the new owner of the plant has recruited a hodgepodge of refugees and other immigrants, who often leave the town as soon as they find better opportunities, creating a constant churn among the population. The switch to a legal work force has made the community feel less stable, some locals say, and it's unclear if Postville will again become a place where immigrants will put down roots, raise children, and live in relative harmony with their very different neighbors.
'For me, it was a fairy tale'
Postville thinks of itself as a place where people of all backgrounds and nationalities can come, do hard and unsavory work, and get ahead. Svetlana Vanchugova, who teaches English classes to non-native speakers at the high school, is one such immigrant. Called "Ms. Lana" by her students, Vanchugova came to Postville in 1995 from Ukraine in order to escape an unhappy marriage and to start a new life with her two sons. "For me it was a fairy tale when I first came to this little town," she says.Read More »from Years after immigration raid, Iowa town feels poorer and less stable