Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Postville: One year after the raid

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Postville, Iowa, is still struggling to recover from a raid by federal agents at a local meatpacking plant last year.

MinnPost— On the morning of May 12, 2008, about 900 federal agents entered the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in this small town and arrested 389 undocumented workers. Most were charged with felonies for stealing Social Security numbers or identity theft. At the time, it was the largest immigration raid in U.S. history.

Agriprocessors was the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country. It had been under investigation by several Jewish groups since 2006 for allegations of workplace safety issues, unsanitary conditions and violations of workers' rights.

This was the first time that the government used felony charges instead of immigration law to prosecute workers. Many workers were put in prison and served sentences of five months or more before being deported. "Postville" became a landmark event in the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform and workplace justice by a variety of organizations nationwide.

Last July, a rally was held in Postville in support of the detained workers. I rode one of the buses sponsored by Jewish Community Action of St. Paul and filed a series of video reports about the event. Those reports are here, here and here.

After the raid a year ago, replacement workers were hired, including people from other immigrant groups as well as homeless shelters, treatment facilities and temporary labor agencies from all around the country. Last fall, the plant was closed for a time. Then it began operating on a limited basis, employing far fewer workers than before. It is currently up for sale, but as yet no deal has been struck.

A few dozen of the arrested workers were allowed to stay in Postville after being processed, having to wear ankle bracelets while awaiting trial. About 30 detained workers and their families remain there today. A few others have been allowed to return temporarily in return for future testimony against the company. Sholom Rubashkin, owner of Agriprocessors, was arrested last year. He is now awaiting trial.

I drove to Postville recently to see how the town had been dealing with the loss of the workers and most of the jobs at the plant. I found a town that has not yet recovered. It is a town on hold, awaiting the results of the trial, the sale of the plant and the outcome of legal proceedings against the detained workers. My two-part video report shows what some of the people helping with the recovery effort in Postville had to say about loss and about hope for Postville.

There will be an interfaith service at St. Bridget Catholic Church in Postville on Tuesday at 3:30.

For more information on the relief effort for detained workers and others in town adversely affected by the events of the past year, go here.

Jewish Community Action, the organization that planned last summer's rally in Postville, and the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration are also holding events Tuesday.

One year ago today at 10 a.m., federal agents arrested 389 workers at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville.

In the first of two video reports, people helping with relief efforts in Postville said the town's social fabric has been devastated since the raid after the community's population was reduced and the plant's operations were significantly cut back.

In today's video we hear about Guatemalan workers, who were the largest group among the detained, and why they came to Minnesota.

Postville is a town that is "holding our collective breath," said Maryn Olson, local coordinator of the Postville Response Coalition. She said that residents are waiting for many issues to be resolved that are out of their control. But ultimately, she said, it's up to the people of Postville to make it a healthy community again.

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