Local activists protest Iowa immigration raid, help organize relief effort


Late Friday afternoon, a crowd assembled on a vibrant street corner in Minneapolis to protest the recent immigration raid of the Agriprocessor, Inc., meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa — which they say has earned little play in Minnesota media outlets even though Monday’s historic roundup of nearly 400 undocumented workers surpassed all others across the country.

To heighten public awareness of the Postville events, a mere three-hour drive from the Twin Cities, activists including a number of Latino community members demonstrated on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue, an area that many Latinos call home.

They pounded on drums and carried signs, chanting, “Stop the raids, stop the racism!” in English and Spanish; cars honked as they passed by. One of the rally’s organizers, Erika Zurawski, who represented a coalition of immigrant supporters, characterized the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operation in Iowa, which had been in the works for months, as “an attack against immigrants and workers” that seemed to take aim at Guatemalans. (Out of the 389 people held following the raid, 300 are from Guatemala, she pointed out. Others originated from Mexico, Ukraine and Israel.) “I’m here today to stand in solidarity with the workers. I oppose what happened in Iowa,” she said, firing up the troops who stood ready to chant together on the sidewalk. By way of legislation and other key measures, she said, “Minnesota should prohibit this and stand up and fight back.”

She also told the group that they could do something right away, to help the cause — by donating money, diapers or other household items — to go to detainees’ families, many of which are now without a breadwinner.

Rafael Espinoza, a labor representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Union (Local 79) in South St. Paul, said the whole ordeal diminished the union’s organizing capacity to improve working conditions at the plant, which had been underway for two years. That affects the union, its membership and its influence in similar endeavors. It is troubling that “everyone is looking at how to deport his or her neighbor,” he said. Instead, people should be focusing on how “immigrants can help build up the country’s economy.”

Ulises Duay, a Latino who participated in the rally, agreed with Espinoza. “I can work in a factory or I can do more than that,” said Duay, who recently lost his house, job and car. Further, “I would worry I would lose my son if ICE came to my house.”

One volunteer at the protest, Conor Hatch, a student in ethnic studies at Metro State University, said, “I saw newspapers online from Iowa [about the raid] and people’s comments were racist and negative against immigrants. I feel people should all have the same rights.”

Due process?

The vast majority of those who were arrested Monday are now also facing criminal charges on top of deportation. Whether the company’s proprietors will also be prosecuted for criminal offenses remains to be seen.

Of the detainees, 306 workers have received criminal charges according to the latest tally from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Many of the workers are being charged with one or more of the following: identity theft, falsifying a Social Security number, illegal reentry into the country and fraudulent use of identification paperwork.

Those not charged criminally continue to undergo the regular deportation process. Some people, including juveniles, were released on humanitarian grounds.

The Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged whether the immigrants have gotten proper access to an attorney. Additionally, some immigration attorneys are reportedly spreading the word that citizens should contact the U.S. Attorney’s office to ensure detainees get adequate legal representation before making any deals with public defenders.

Despite those concerns, ICE spokesperson Tim Counts said everyone who has been arrested has been “afforded due process at all steps,” including ample access to attorneys. “The operation was conducted with professionalism and full compliance with our policies and procedures, as are all of our operations,” Counts said.

The aftermath

Many people who hoped to track down loved ones poured into Waterloo where most of the detainees were taken. (The National Cattle Congress Fairgrounds is serving as a temporary federal court venue through next week. Those who have hit with criminal charges are being transferred to the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Office.)

Many other immigrants who were too afraid to go home or who were estranged from a spouse or parent arrived in the droves at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville. All week, about 400 people have been put up in the church and parish hall, according to Sister Mary McCauley, who works at the church. She and other members of the pastoral team began to mobilize resources when they started hearing rumors last week about a possible raid. “On Monday, when we saw helicopters flying over the plant, we knew they weren’t just rumors. We had no time to organize. We were in crisis mode,” she said.

Now, they’ve shifted gears. “To the best of our knowledge, ICE is out of Postville. They’ll probably be safe at their apartments. We have to mobilize them back into the normal, orderly way of living.”

But some people argue that it won’t be easy to go back to the way things were before. Amalia Anderson is project director for the Minnesota-based Main Street Project, which works to revitalize rural communities. She was in Postville this week to help with the relief effort and said the story is all-too familiar. “Rural areas are the battleground for the immigration debate. This is huge. Raids affect communities. This will be felt for years in economic costs, trauma, distrust and community-building.”

Minnesota Monitor’s sister site, Iowa Independent, has ongoing coverage of the immigration raid and its aftermath. In its most recent story, Lynda Waddington writes that Congressman Bruce Braley wants to know whether federal agencies communicated prior to the May 12 raid on Agriprocessors in Postville and whether investigations previously launched by the Iowa Department of Labor Services are continuing.