An unease whispered through this tiny town in northeastern Iowa, where the rolling hills are a study in vivid colors – red barns, white clapboard houses and vibrant green cornfields plowed with almost architectural precision.
It drifted through Postville's downtown, where restaurants serving tamales share three short blocks with the El Vaquero clothing store, a kosher food market and the Spice-N-Ice Liquor and Redemption store.
It nagged at Irma Rucal that Monday after Mother's Day weekend, as the Guatemalan immigrant worked her regular shift salting chickens at Agriprocessors, the world's largest kosher meatpacking plant and Postville's biggest employer.
Then, just after 10 a.m., that insistent murmur burst to the surface with a frantic shout: “La Migra! Salvese el que pueda!” Immigration! Save yourself if you can.
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The bulk of the plant's 900 workers – mostly Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants – dashed out doors, through hallways and into corners, trying to escape federal agents conducting what would be the largest immigration raid in U.S. history.
Outside the plant, Postville Mayor Robert Penrod, alerted just before the raid, gasped at the sight of helicopters, buses, vans and armed immigration agents.
A few blocks away, at St. Bridget's Catholic Church, the sanctuary quickly overflowed with the terrified children and spouses of detained workers.
For years, even decades, these Mexican and Guatemalan families had called Postville home. Here, in a place first settled by German and Norwegian Lutherans and Irish Catholics more than 150 years ago, Hispanic immigrants were raising children, buying houses, building businesses.
Like the Hasidic Jews who came to the town in 1987 to open the meatpacking plant, and the Eastern Europeans who made up the first band of workers there, the influx of Guatemalans and Mexicans had both buffeted and bolstered this quiet community – until it reached a new cultural equilibrium.
In time, the newcomers became part of Postville, which bills itself as “Hometown to the World.” Now, they were clustered in hiding or being herded away in handcuffs.
Aftermath of a disaster
It was as if a tornado had whipped through the town or a flood had swallowed up houses. Three months after the raid, that's how many in Postville describe the events of May 12.
Lives disrupted. People pushed out of jobs and homes. Children separated from parents. Businesses verging toward collapse.
And as in any small town swept by disaster, the community quickly banded together to help the victims.
In the days following the raid, donations of food, clothing and money poured in to St. Bridget's, which became a sanctuary to nearly 400 immigrants.
Red ribbons, symbolizing support for the detained workers, still flutter from lamp posts and tree trunks. A sign on one lawn near the Agriprocessors plant declares: “Immigrants Welcome. Bienvenidos.”
“We've got a lot of people here who need help. We can't just throw them out on the street,” said the silver-haired mayor. “They're our family. They've made their homes here, had jobs here, raised families here.”
As with a disaster, the initial mobilization has been followed by shifting emotions – quiet anger at the government's actions; outrage at allegations of abusive working conditions at the plant; and above all, worry.
Postville has lost more than one-fourth of its pre-raid population of 2,300, including 389 Agriprocessors workers who were detained by immigration officials, and scores more who have fled or gone into hiding.
About 60 workers, mostly women with small children, were released on humanitarian grounds pending court dates. Of those, 40 to 45 were required to wear black electronic monitoring bracelets, leaving them unable to work or to leave.
The Mexican and Guatemalan families who once pushed strollers along the streets or frequented the downtown stores and restaurants now try to stay out of sight.
In their place are newcomers drawn, as they were, by reports of job openings at Agriprocessors, or recruited by labor agencies contracted by the plant. Many of the new workers are Somali men who keep to themselves and gather to share food and coffee at a storefront on Postville's main drag.
Teeming with culture
To be sure, this town with no stoplights, three churches and one Orthodox Jewish synagogue has weathered its share of change, and forged an identity by absorbing successive waves of newcomers who found their way here.
First came the Rubashskin family, which bought a defunct meatpacking plant on the edge of town and opened Agriprocessors. A small community of Hasidic Jews from the Lubavitcher sect, including rabbis who slaughtered animals according to religious law, followed.
Then came the first group of plant workers – immigrants from Bosnia, Poland, Russia and former Soviet republics. In the late 1990s, those workers were gradually replaced by Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants.
At one time, Postville was home to people from 24 nations, speaking 17 languages.
The mix of cultures, which might be unremarkable in a larger city, is striking in this 2-square-mile town set in the middle of cornfields and dairy farms.
Inside City Hall, municipal notices are posted in English, Spanish and Hebrew, and a sign lists major Jewish holidays. At the Spice-N-Ice liquor store, which once stocked 23 varieties of vodka, the shelves now hold an assortment of Mexican and Guatemalan beer.
But now, many people fear that the raid has endangered that carefully calibrated balance of cultures.
“A lot of good workers were taken away, a lot of good families are gone,” said Kim Deering, 48, a lifelong Postville resident and owner of Wishing Well, a home decor and flower shop. “The community is drained, of our ‘giving' energy, of wondering how long the new people will stay, if it will be a culture that fits into our community. We are grieving, scared, apprehensive.”
Struggling to survive
They have become walking symbols of the raid.
Las mujeres con brazaletes. The women with bracelets.
They came from Guatemala and Mexico to work grueling 12- to 14-hour days in the Agriprocessors plant, frequently standing in knee-deep water, their hands cramped and swollen from shifts salting chickens or loading meat onto trays. They earned $6.25 to $7.25 an hour, with 20-minute meal breaks and, they say, often no overtime pay.
But these women, whose faces are now creased with anguish, say they were happy.
Happy to be earning enough money to support their families. Happy to be in a place where their children's hopes could bear fruit. Happy to be carving out lives in a quiet village, far from the privation and violence of their hometowns.
May 12 changed all of that.
Now, about 20 to 25 women remain tethered to the bracelets – black electronic monitoring devices that dig into the skin of their right ankles, leaving dark bruises and painful cuts.
And the women who happily embraced hard work are forced to subsist on donations from St. Bridget's while they await court dates.
“I am very nervous. I don't know what is going to happen. And I don't know if I have the strength to keep fighting,” said Silvia, 39, speaking in Spanish during a support group meeting for immigrant women, too afraid to give her surname. “I wish I could plead with the judge, for my children's sake, that he would give me a little more time here so my children could continue studying, so I could keep working.”
Without the income from jobs in this country, these mothers say they will not have enough money to send their children to school, to fund dreams of college and careers, and in many cases, even to buy them milk.
A new wave of workers
Without Latino workers, Agriprocessors is still operating at only 50 percent capacity despite efforts to recruit replacement workers, said Chaim Abrahams, the plant manager. Outside the plant, “Now Hiring” signs have been posted along the roadside.
“I hope our little town will survive. I think it will,” said Sharon Drahn, editor of the Postville Herald-Leader. “We've gotten through lots of things, and we'll get through this, too.”
There are already signs of renewal.
About 150 Somalis, refugees who live and work legally in this country, have arrived to work at Agriprocessors. At first, most were men, but a growing number of women are starting to join them. In the evenings, the long, lanky men and women, swathed in traditional Muslim dresses and hijabs, can often be seen walking downtown.
There, inside the former “Sunday Mattress” store, where the windows still tout Fulls, Queens, and Kings, Hassan Aar described the pull of work that lured him from Minneapolis to Postville.
“It's a good place to be,” said Aar, 27, who left his wife and three young sons behind in the Twin Cities. “I heard there was work here, so I came first to get settled. If it works out, then I will bring them.”
Yet, even as Aar and other Somalis tentatively contemplate a future in this place of rolling hills and pastoral beauty, Guatemalan immigrants are fighting to keep their own dreams from slipping away.
Inside a nondescript apartment just off the railroad tracks, several women have set up a makeshift weaving cooperative. There, behind closed curtains and by the light of a television set, they flick colorful threads with the deftness of harpists and create intricately woven cloths that are a Guatemalan tradition.
Wearing black ankle bracelets, they raise money for food by selling wall hangings, purses and belts at a local crafts markets.
“Before, we tolerated everything they did to us at the plant. We worked very hard, but we lived free,” said Fidelina, 37. “Now, we have no work. We are not free. And we have no idea what will happen to us.”
The same could be said for Postville.