POSTVILLE, Ia. — The people of this town will never forget what happened here a year ago, today. At first, there was confusion. There were so many helicopters in the sky and, one by one, they seemed to be landing everywhere. Men, armed to the teeth like commandos, jumped out and grabbed people on the streets. Many of the helicopters landed at the huge meat packing plant where men jumped out and ran into the buildings. The confusion turned to fear as a town watched helplessly while the men grabbed hundreds of people, most from their jobs at the factory, but some right off the streets or out of their homes.
Sister Mary McCauley, a nun at St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church, told the World, by phone yesterday, “I rushed from the Church to the plant, while the helicopters were still landing. I stood outside the plant, unable to help, as they were fitting hundreds of our parishioners with five-point iron shackles because they committed the crime of wanting to work and feed their families. I met a parishioner who cried as he said, ‘Sister, a terrible thing is happening to our town and to our country.’”
On May 12, 2008 Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents raided this town, arresting nearly 400 individuals. Those arrested included 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, two Israelis and four Ukrainians. A year later, the labor movement, human rights and religious groups, and a variety of community and business organizations are determined to make sure that what a leader of the United Food and Commercial Workers here called “our darkest days” never happens again.
They held a press conference here May 11 to commemorate the raid and to talk about their struggle for meaningful reform of the nation’s immigration laws.
“I expect that every senator and congressperson in this country will take responsibility to see to it that immigration reform is part of the changes that are sweeping the nation in this year, 2009. This cannot be permitted to happen anywhere else, ever again,” McCauley said at the press conference.
The lives of many here and the economic viability of the town itself continue to bear the marks of that “darkest of days.”
Nearly 100 Postville residents are wearing GPS tracking devices. In most cases they are raid victims who have children. They are not permitted to leave town and, since they are undocumented, they are not permitted to have any type of employment.
Labor and community groups around the country have joined together to raise money for the St. Bridget’s “Response Team.” The operation has taken responsibility for feeding, clothing and providing medical care to the families affected. The cost has amounted to at least $80,000 per month. “We have to spend this money to help care for a community that, before the raid, was not only taking care of itself but making a big contribution to the economy of this town,” said Paul Riel, director of Hispanic ministries at the church. “There were four thriving Hispanic businesses in town. All of these folks were working and spending money here. Now businesses are closing and Postville’s economy is devastated far beyond how it would have been affected if it were just the economic crisis we were dealing with.”
“We’ve got empty storefronts and we’ve got property, homes and apartments all over that can’t be rented,” added Sister McCauley. “The raid has literally devastated us.”
“Immigration raids like the one that happened here are an attack on family values, hard work and the American Dream,” said Mark Lauritsen, International Vice President of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that worked to organize employees at the big meat packing plant in town. “All of these immigration raids will go down as the darkest days of our history.”
Lauritsen said, “What we have learned from them is that we can’t enforce our way to immigration reform. If we had taken half the energy expended in these raids and applied it to enforcement of labor laws we would have gone much further toward the goal of solving our problem.”
He said he backed the framework for reform put forward by both the Change to Win and AFL-CIO unions. That framework, he said, included enforcement of existing labor laws, a path toward legalization for undocumented workers, family unity and elimination of raids at workplaces, particularly locations where there are on-going labor disputes.
The union leader said he thinks meaningful immigration reform will take place this year but that he hopes the Obama administration will come out soon with clearer positions similar to those put forward by the labor movement.
Fr. Mark Fallon spoke to the press as the representative of Catholic Social Services in New Bedford, Mass. ICE detained hundreds of workers in his town in a March, 2007 raid.
“Migration is not a crime,” Fallon declared, “It is the human face of a global economy. It brings us beautiful community members.” Fallon told reporters that, “the Mexican bishops were correct when they said the North American Free Trade Agreement caused the cultural death of their country.”
On the New Bedford raid itself, Fallon said, “Homeland Security profoundly ruptured the bonds of the community. They had no idea of the cultural reality of the people they rounded up. None of the 361 they arrested were criminals and 200 had to be returned to take care of their children. Others should be granted political asylum because they were refugees from political battles that could have resulted in their deaths. Homeland Security never bothered to look at the situation before it conducted the raid.”
Another topic dealt with at the press conference was the negative effect current immigration law has on law enforcement, in general. “A police chief from North Carolina talks about how challenging it is to deliver police services to a community forced to be afraid of having contact with the police,” said Lauri Lowell, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New Haven, Conn.
Lowell described how, in part to deal with this problem, New Haven’s board of aldermen, in Jan. of 2007, created a resident ID card. “There was real joy and celebration about this,” Lowell said, “but 36 hours later, in the early morning hours, ICE agents raided the city and took 31 people into detention. They pushed their way into homes and children had to watch as their parents were forced to lie on the floor and then were taken out. They cried, not knowing whether they’d ever see their parents again.”
Lowell recounted how, by the next night, more than 1000 people gathered outside St. Rose of Lima Church, attended by most of those who were rounded up. A Jewish woman in her 80’s who was born in Germany spoke to the crowd. She told those gathered how, at the age of six, she watched her father taken out of their home by the Nazis and she told them how her heart went out to the children.