The Lookout

Years after immigration raid, Iowa town feels poorer and less stable

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
The Lookout


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.

Vanchugova taught English at a university in Ukraine, but when she arrived in America, her only option was to work at the plant, packing chickens. "Just imagine what a university professor feels working for agriprocessors for three years," she told Yahoo News as her high school students worked quietly behind her. "One thought was torturing me: that I didn't belong there."

She was quickly promoted to making labels for the food products and eventually became the quality control manager for the entire plant. The plant's managers sponsored her for a work visa, helping her to get legal immigration status after she overstayed her visitor's visa. Today, because of tighter federal rules, Vanchugova would most likely not have been able to adjust her immigration status.

"I prayed every day because I knew that … if you are illegal here, there is no way for you," she said. "You cannot get any job, you cannot do anything. All you can do is work at agriprocessors, and that is it."

When Vanchugova's sons attended school in Postville, officials there--desperate for a way to deal with an influx of students from dozens of countries who could not speak English--learned that she used to teach English at a university. They asked her to set up an English as a Second Language program at the high school. Now, about a third of the K-12 students in Postville are in ESL classes. Over time, the school has enrolled children from at least 35 different countries.

Three years after arriving in the town with two children, two suitcases, and no money, Vanchugova became a K-12 ESL teacher. She is now an American citizen.

Vanchugova thinks of Postville as her "motherland," the place where she was reborn. The immigration raid permanently changed the spirit of the town, she told Yahoo News. "Things changed, and not for the better," she said. "It is not that Postville anymore."

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The "Taste of Mexico" restaurant on Lawler St (Goodwin)

'I came here to work and have money'

For the next generation of immigrants to Postville--the Guatemalans and others who were netted in the raid--the fairy tale never came true. A few dozen were granted visas for cooperating with law enforcement in cases against their supervisors, but most of them are gone, according to Steve Brackett, the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church who led the community's response to the raid's aftermath.

The wave of immigrants that replaced them has been less willing to put down roots and call Postville their home, locals say. "From my perspective as a community we were stabilizing in 2008," Brackett says. "Rather than single males working, they had brought their families. We had people who were buying houses and planned to stay here."

Wilson Eduardo, a native of the Pacific island of Palau, is one of four remaining Palauans, of about 150 who traveled 8,000 miles to Postville four months after the immigration raid in 2008.

Then-C.E.O. Sholom Rubashkin was desperate to find legal workers immediately after the raid, and sought them out in Palau (a former U.S.-administered United Nations territory, which means Palauans can live and work legally in America), homeless shelters in south Texas, and a Native American reservation in Nebraska, among other places. He offered to pay their way to the plant and promised them a land of opportunity.

The Palauans showed up in September 2008 in T-shirts and sandals. The newcomers were incredulous when they were told that winter temperatures could reach 20 degrees below zero, easy. And two months after the Palauans got to Postville, the plant went bankrupt, putting Eduardo and his 150 countrymen out of a job. Unlike nearly all of the other Palauans, who quickly fled home or to other states in a mass exodus, Eduardo decided to stay. He got a job cleaning apartments, and when the plant reopened in 2009 he went back to the chicken line, where he eventually earned $11 an hour.

Three years later, on a chilly December morning, Eduardo was fortified from the cold with a puffy coat and a knit hat adorned with a dollar sign. He bought a scratch-off lottery ticket and a phone card at the Guppy's gas station, chatted pleasantly with the woman behind the counter, and began walking home to his apartment, which is close to the new Dollar General store on the edge of town.

"Now I got a lot of people to know here," he says. "When I go around I meet some people I know and I talk. That's good for me."

As one of only four Palauans left in the town, Eduardo gets lonely. "But I don't mind because I came here to work and have money and help family," he says. In Palau, where he learned English in grade school, he made only $3.16 an hour working in the country's court system. Working in the meatpacking plant made him sick—the ammonia and chicken fluff irritated his lungs, and the repetitive chicken-hanging motion caused his wrists to swell painfully—but he was able to send home extra money to help his family.

A little more than a year after moving to Postville, Eduardo quit his job at the plant to work for a plastics company in nearby Decorah, a safer and more pleasant job. But a month ago, Eduardo was laid off from that job for the winter. He's planning on going back to the meatpacking plant, at least for now.

'There's less feeling of community'

Today, the meatpacking plant is called Agri Star, and its new owner, Hershey Friedman of Montreal, says he uses e-verify to ensure his workers are authorized to work in the United States. Legal refugees from Somalia, most of them men without families, have come to work. Chad Wahls, the principal of Postville's elementary and middle school, says only six Somali kids are enrolled in the town's schools, even though Mohamed Hassan, a Somali who moved to Postville from Minneapolis three months ago to work at the chicken slaughtering part of the plant, told Yahoo News he estimated the population of Somali adults to be more than 100.

"Guatemalans came husbands, wives, cousins, brothers, sisters … and everyone could see in the Guatemalans, you know, family values," said Aaron Goldsmith, a former city councilman and the first Orthodox Jewish politician to hold elected office in Iowa. Over the years, the Jewish population has built a synagogue, a kosher grocery store, and a gender-segregated religious school in Postville.

"When you have more of this eclectic crowd, there's less feeling of community and bond," Goldsmith said. "I think it makes it a little colder. I'm not saying it's bad, I'm just saying it's different."

Hassan, the Somali immigrant, says he likes his work. But he thinks the Hispanic immigrants in the town--Postville is still 32 percent Hispanic, according to data from the 2010 census--don't like him. "They don't want Somali people here," Hassan said. He left his father and brother back in Minneapolis, and says he is looking for a wife but hasn't had much luck. (Finding a spouse is no easy thing to accomplish anywhere, but it's especially hard in Postville. Wahls, the principal, says it's difficult to recruit teachers to come here in part because "if you come here single, you're going to stay single. There's not a lot of fish in the sea for you here.")

Town officials let the Somalis worship in an empty restaurant storefront on Main Street, even though the mosque technically violates building codes. "Some of those things you just have to let go," says Leigh Rekow, the mayor.

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A menorah decoration in Postville (Goodwin)

Postville's leaders are used to religious and cultural negotiations and concessions. For the holidays, Postville's streets are lined with alternating Christmas wreaths and menorahs. The city council "negotiated with the Jewish people and they get the intersections and we get the rest," Rekow said.

One menorah was placed at an intersection by the Lutheran church. "Some people complained about that," Rekow said. "We talked to them and we moved it back one pole."

'The only good thing I see about this raid'

One reason immigrant turnover in the town is higher than before the 2008 raid may be that legal immigrants have more employment options than the mostly undocumented Guatemalans and Mexicans who used to work at the meatpacking plant. They are also less vulnerable to abuse.

"The only good thing I see about this raid is at least it brought to the front page that our food is cheap in part because immigrants are exploited and are victimized," said Sonia Parras-Konrad, a Des Moines immigration lawyer who represented, pro bono, dozens of the Postville detainees. Undocumented people are often afraid to report labor abuses and crimes for fear of being deported, she says.

Parras-Konrad and Brackett, the Lutheran pastor, both told Yahoo News that the undocumented population is on the rise in the town and speculated that the plant may be hiring illegal immigrants again. That could happen even without the plant managers' knowledge: A 2009 federal study found that e-verify is only 46 percent accurate when checking unauthorized workers, because it can't detect some kinds of fraud. Friedman, the plant's owner, said in an e-mail that the plant uses e-verify and that he has no difficulties finding legal workers to staff the plant.

What the federal immigration raid did not accomplish, however, is returning the meatpacking plant to how it was in the past, when Iowa-born Postville residents were paid middle-class wages to work on the all-beef kill floor. Harlan White, a retired appliance repairman and volunteer firefighter, said he made $2 an hour in 1960 (which, in inflation-adjusted dollars, would now be more than $15 an hour) to carry used cow hides from the plant's basement and pack them onto a train, one of the lowest-paying jobs at the company. In 1981, the Hygrade beef plant in Storm Lake, a four-hour drive west of Postville, paid $19 an hour as a starting salary--$47 an hour in today's dollars.

Workers at Agri Star now start out at $8.50 an hour, according to Eduardo and Mayor Rekow, a lower wage than they were offered three years ago in the aftermath of the raid. Rekow says some non-immigrants from Postville work in the plant's clerical office, but he's not aware of any who work on the line.

This story is part of a series of articles on the politics of Iowa, leading up to Saturday's Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, sponsored by Yahoo! and ABC News.

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