Somali workers flock to Iowa for jobs at plant

Scores of Somali immigrants are taking jobs at the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, replacing Hispanic workers arrested in a huge immigration raid and forcing a remote Iowa town to make another cultural shift.

Before the May 12 raid at Agriprocessors, hundreds of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants maintained a vibrant community in Postville, a largely white community of 2,200 people in northeast Iowa.

Now the stoops and haunts once occupied by Hispanics are being filled by about 150 Somali men.

Aydurus Farah, a 21-year-old who immigrated from Somalia in 2004, set out for work in meatpacking plants to make money for his family back home in Somalia.

He planned to begin work at Agriprocessors this week, drawn from Minneapolis to Postville by the promised wages.

“They said over there they pay like 13 dollars an hour, very good money,” Farah said as he stood outside Sabor Latino, a popular Mexican restaurant.

He said he also appreciates the city's small-town charms.

“I did not like Minneapolis — too many people, too many cars,” he said. “I like small towns. I am small-town guy, so this is nice place. Maybe I can raise family here.”

The influx of Somalis has been met with some surprise in a community still bewildered by the Agriprocessors raid, the largest of its kind in the United States. Federal agents arrested 389 people, mostly Guatemalans and Mexicans who had established roots and become part of the community.

The new immigrants have “raised some eyebrows, which is pretty normal when you get somebody different in town,” Postville Mayor Robert Penrod said.

“That said, as far as I know, they haven't caused a whole lot of problems. They've been keeping to themselves,” he said.

It's not the first cultural change in Postville. The slaughterhouse attracted eastern Europeans in the 1990s, including immigrants from Bosnia, Poland, Russia and former Soviet Republics. Hispanics became the majority in the last decade.

The result is that a town that barely covers two square miles is home to people from 24 nationalities speaking 17 languages.

Farah and others said the Somali community in Minneapolis and elsewhere is abuzz with talk of well-paid meatpacking jobs at Agriprocessors.

That runs counter to stories told by workers at the plant, who described pay before the raid as $10 an hour or lower with no extra for overtime. Some also claimed the plant hired underage employees and forced its workers to endure unsafe conditions.

Juda Engelmayer, a spokesman for Agriprocessors, said the company wouldn't comment on pay or staffing issues.

Many of the Somalis who have come to Postville are legal immigrants with roots in Minneapolis, which has one of the nation's largest concentrations of Somali immigrants.