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Postville one year later: Still anger and pain
Three panels represent the consequences of last year's ICE raid. Students are absent from schools. Businesses are closed. A frightened child holds her Guatemalan worry dolls as she wonders what will happen next.
In November last year, Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy following allegations of labor law violations and abuses of workers' rights, immigration law violations, and even mistreatment of the cattle it processed. Before the raid, Agriprocessor employed 900 of the town’s 2200 people. Most of the plant’s employees were Guatemalans who had fled their country for political and economic reasons. The other arrested immigrants were Mexicans, and a few Ukrainians and Israelis.
The raid, historic in many ways, has continued to frame the national debate on immigration reform, with many protesting raids because they destroy families and create havoc in small communities. A protest at federal immigration offices in Bloomington, MN ended with arrests for civil disobedience last week.
Vic Rosenthal of the Jewish Community Action defends the rights of undocumented immigrant workers. He says they are not criminals: “They cannot break laws that are already broken. These are administrative and not criminal laws.”
Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas, a legal interpreter, has also continually argued that immigration reform will need to be developed around a human rights frame. He says that many of these immigrants are victims of their poverty and many times are not even aware that smugglers have sold other people’s identities to them. A recent Supreme Court ruling that rejected the use of federal identity theft charges against undocumented immigrants who use false Social Security numbers to get jobs.
Alicia Lopez Nava, a native of Mexico, was one of the immigrant workers arrested last year. She had been working at the meat plant for about seven years. For years, she had heard rumors that immigration authorities would be raiding the plant and she would be forced to return to her native country. But even this long-time fear did not prepare her for the events that have unfolded over the past year.
Three panels show last year's ICE raid. The first shows a worker at the Agriprocessors plant. Then ICE raids the plant on May 12, 2008. People in orange jumpsuits go to trial.
Although Nava had a school-aged daughter, she was not released until activists protested the separation of mothers from their children. A year later, Nava still seemed visibly shaken as she awaits her July court appearance, when she will most likely be deported for entering the country illegally. Her thirteen-year-old daughter Valerie, who has grown up in the US, said she fears that her family will be sent to Mexico.
“Things are pretty bad in Mexico," Valerie said. "At least here I have an assurance of an education.” Valerie said she dares not think about college until she knows her fate.
Nava said her life in Mexico was desolate. Her aging parents need medical attention so she sent them part of her wages, when she was working. Now she worries constantly about them. Meanwhile, she has to rely on well-wishers to support her and her family. With a monitoring device on her ankle, Nava’s movement is limited: she cannot work or leave the country. In spite of it all, she makes the best of her situation. She volunteers at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, an institution that has been instrumental in supporting the 28 women and their families who are awaiting court hearings. The church, which has spent more than $1.2 million during the past year, has been home.
Nine panels represent the consequences of last year's ICE raid. Some of the immigrants still waiting to testify in cases against Agriprocessors officials wear ankle monitoring devices.
Last year, Pedro Lopez was emotional when he spoke to thousands of protesters about his mother, who also worked at the plant. The thirteen-year-old Lopez has not seen his mother in a year. He teared up when he recounted his last phone call, a few days ago, to Mexico. “Mother’s Day, I could not see my mother. But I promised her that I would work hard in school.” He is determined to become a lawyer when he grows up so that he can represent people like his mother who, he said, are on the wrong side of justice.
In a letter he wrote to President Obama, Lopez asked for a pardon for his mother so that she attends his middle school graduation. “I told Mr. Obama that I could not repay him with money but I would always do my best and help people in need.”
To commemorate the raid, and the lasting impact it has had on this small community, hundreds of people from surrounding towns and the rest of the country had a solemn prayer service and march on May 12. Both were decidedly solemn, as they “relived the heartache, the anguish and the terror of May 12, 2008,” said Sister Mary McCauley from St. Bridget’s church.
Rabbi Morris Allen urged Americans to push for immigration reform, “Every society has a right to have an immigration policy that has safety and security measures for its members,” he said, insisting that a sane and rationale immigration policy does not exploit immigrants, but provides opportunity for all society.
Rabbi Morris Allen is a leader in the Hekhsher Tzedekh movement that connects worker rights and Jewish religious observance.
The Jewish community in Minnesota has been particularly involved in calling out Agriprocessor, a kosher meat processing facility, on their mistreatment of workers. These protests, echoed by other Jewish groups throughout the country, directly affected the loss of sales of Agriprocessor's kosher meat. As a result, the price of kosher beef across the country has gone up. Empire Kosher, a kosher poultry plant has begun kosher beef production to meet this need. Rabbi Allen, who pioneered Hekhsher Tzedek (ethically produced kosher food) says that: "Hekhsher Tzedek is the antidote to the events that occurred in Postville. Never again will kosher food be produced unethically."
Postville once called itself “hometown of the world” and prided itself in its diversity. Today, the town struggles to exist, with "for sale" signs marking lawns and shopfronts, residents seeking opportunities in neighboring towns, and the few remaining immigrants awaiting their fate.
Nekessa Opoti (nekessa [at] kenyaimagine [dot] com) is a freelance writer and the publisher of kenyaimagine.com, a Kenyan online magazine and newspaper and editor of Mshale, a Minnesota-based African community newspaper.
©2009 Nekessa Opoti