Postville, Iowa: Ground Zero In The Immigration Reform Debate
The small church of St. Bridget in Postville, Iowa, holds a couple of hundred people, yet, on May 12, nearly a thousand overflowed from the atrium into its community room. People from different religious denominations, from every corner of Iowa and beyond, had come to this small town in the middle of corn and cattle country to commemorate one of the cruelest immigration raids ever to take place in the history of the United States.
Armed with 600 arrest warrants, nearly 1,000 agents with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement descended on Postville early on May 12, 2008, just as the night shift was about to go home and the morning shift was getting started. Almost 400 immigrants, many of them from Mexico, but most from Guatemala, were loaded into buses and driven almost 80 miles to the National Cattle Congress where they would be pressured into accepting a 5-month prison sentence followed by a quick deportation - with no lawyers present - in order to avoid aggravated identity theft and other charges that would have resulted in a 2-year prison term.
At 10 a.m. a year later, the bells of the town's three churches tolled 389 times for each person detained. During the service, where religious scriptures were read in English, Spanish and Hebrew, the names of all the immigrants were read.
Postville's reputation as ground zero for the immigration debate has since been established, even if it's not the only town that has been the target of a major raid. On Dec. 12, 2006, more than two years earlier, Swift and Co. meatpacking plants in six states were raided at the same time and 1,300 workers arrested in small towns. On Aug. 25, 2008, 595 workers were nabbed at a Howard Industries Inc. factory in Laurel, Miss, a manufacturer of electrical equipment including transformers.
Yet, the memory of Postville has endured and become emblematic of what's wrong with this country's immigration laws: enforcement only eliminates a much needed labor force, splits families and tears at the fabric of society. A decreasing native population, coupled with their expectations of higher standards of living, make jobs such as the one available at Agriprocessors unattractive for the native population. We've become too rich to prepare our own food.
Back in Los Angeles, California, it is difficult to imagine the impact this raid has had in the tiny community. In this sprawling metropolis, frequent raids take dozens of men and womenÂ from their homes without causing more than a blip on the city's radar screen. Amidst the high unemployment and budget holes and among more than 4 million residents, the absence of a few hundred people is hardly cause for concern.
But in Postville, the massive raid proved to be an enormous wound that has hardly healed. Still bandaged and bleeding, Postville has issued a clarion call to reform the immigration laws of this country. And it's perhaps its voice that's sounding the loudest of them all.
Many of those who busy themselves reading the immigration tea leaves are becoming excited about the possibilities of comprehensive reform on the horizon - or at least on the bottom of the tea cup.
For instance, blogger Marisa TreviÃ±o cites increased support for the Dream Act, a proposal to give legal status to undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. when they were little, as proof of impending immigration reform.
There's also the fact that President Barack Obama called for a June 8 meeting to discuss immigration reform with Democratic and Republican legislators, although nobody expects an announcement to be made.
If indeed there's immigration reform coming, it will be due in no small part to the efforts of St. Bridget in Postville and its allies in other religious communities - the Lutherans, the Jews, the Presbyterians and the Unitarians. It has been through their undying support day and night that not only its congregation has endured this ordeal, but also many people all over the country have been able to see the devastation and human suffering caused by immigration legislation so out of touch with economic reality. It is people of faith who are providing the moral legitimacy to this struggle, and it is through their efforts that this country may finally achieve comprehensive immigration reform sooner rather than later.
Most importantly, they're building the extremely needed bridge between the undocumented population and the natives, the descendants of immigrants who must have somewhere in their DNA an imprint of how hard it is to survive and thrive in a foreign land.