Postville looks to the future five years after immigration raid - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Postville looks to the future five years after immigration raid

Exactly five years ago Sunday, a small eastern Iowa town was in shock following what was then the biggest immigration raid in U.S. history.  It's a day that devastated the community, creating an impact still felt today. Exactly five years ago Sunday, a small eastern Iowa town was in shock following what was then the biggest immigration raid in U.S. history. It's a day that devastated the community, creating an impact still felt today.

Exactly five years ago Sunday, a small eastern Iowa town was in shock following what was then the biggest immigration raid in U.S. history.

It's a day that devastated the community, creating an impact still felt today.

On May 12, 2008, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) swarmed the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville.

Federal officials detained 389 people, mostly from Mexico and Guatemala, suspected of being in the country illegally.

Officials bussed them to Waterloo, where they appeared before federal judges. Some were deported, others were allowed to stay under a variety of special circumstances.

Five years later, the city is on the path to recovery and looking to a brighter future.

Rolling into Postville, with its fewer than 2,500 people in the space of two square miles, the city seems like any other small eastern Iowa town.

A look down Lawler Street, however, with its Mexican restaurant, kosher grocery, Somali business, nearby Guatemalan store and more reveals why its slogan is "Hometown to the World."

For a small community in a state where approximately nine out of every 10 residents are white, the Postville High School soccer team is remarkably diverse.

Junior Alejandro Nunez plays on the varsity team. His parents brought him from Mexico when he was five, he said, to find a better life.

It was one day in sixth grade, however, Nunez will never forget.

"I was in, I think it was reading class, and I saw the helicopters pass by, and they told us that Immigration was here," Nunez said. "(It) impacted a lot of families around here."

ICE agents arrested his mother but let her stay in Postville to care for her three boys. However, like others in her situation, the federal government banned her from working and kept her in an ankle bracelet monitor for more than a year.

It was people like Nunez and his mother for whom Sister Mary McCauley found herself caring and advocating in the months after the raid.

Now retired and living in Dubuque, McCauley was then pastoral administrator of St. Bridget Catholic Church in Postville.

"We offered them shelter, we offered them food, we offered them medical services, some legal assistance, some counseling," McCauley said.

She added that the church "just became a place for people to gather, where they felt secure and supported."

Looking back on May 12, 2008, McCauley calls it "the most exhausting, challenging, heart-breaking and yet transformative day of my life."

Postville City Council member Dawn Hernandez said she'll never forget the day, either.

In the hours following the raid, which happened in the morning, children of men and women who worked at Agriprocessors gathered with school officials and other caretakers to await their parents' fate.

"There was a five-year-old little girl -- she was a kindergartner, and it was her birthday that day," Hernandez said. "She had on her little 'Happy Birthday' hat and her little backpack on her back and was just sitting there.

"That's the most painful memory for me to this day, even though it wasn't family, just the image of a five-year-old child not knowing if she had parents to go home to on her birthday," Hernandez said. "No child should ever live through that."

ICE arrested Hernandez' mother-in-law in the raid, allowing her to return to Postville to care for her younger children, though she, like Nunez' mother, had to wear an ankle bracelet monitor for more than a year.

Hernandez, who wasn't a City Council member at the time of the raid, was heavily involved in the community. The fallout from the raid helped fuel her successful bid for civic service, giving her a whole new perspective on the aftermath of that day.

"We had many businesses close and shut down, many homes go into foreclosures," Hernandez said. "All of our property values are down 25 percent now because of so many houses on the market in bad shape."

That 25 percent drop is only for the Postville properties in Allamakee County. The other part of the city, in Clayton County, did not see the drop, Hernandez said.

She also said Agriprocessors never paid their back property taxes upon bankruptcy in 2008, "which was a large sum of money, and so the city of Postville was in the hole for that."

Pastor Steve Brackett of Postville's St. Paul Lutheran Church said the raid is a painful memory for the community.

"I think there's been a sense that we've done our mourning and our grieving and we've tried to rebuild," he said.

Kosher meatpacking plant Agri Star bought the plant after Agriprocessors went bankrupt.

Nunez' mother returned to the plant under its new owners.

"She say it's better work pay and better work conditions," he said.

"With it remaining open under new ownership, that has been very helpful to the community, and businesses are starting to come back," Brackett said.

People from cultures completely new to Postville, such as Somali refugees, began filling the jobs left vacant by those who never returned to the plant.

A number of those former workers either were deported, escaped the raid and fled town, or stayed in Postville but sought employment elsewhere.

Ayan Mohamed is a friendly, 19-year-old Somali refugee who came to Postville from St. Paul, Minn., eight months ago to work at Agri Star.

She said she enjoys the diversity of the small town.

"My friends, they come from Mexico. Some of them (are) Spanish, some of them American, like USA. Some of them Somali," she said, adding the wide array of friends is helping improve her English.

"I think it's been a little bit less difficult for our newer immigrant groups who have come in since the raid to become more comfortable here and to feel a little bit more accepted," Hernandez said.

"People are more welcoming now," Nunez said. "And they understand what people are doing here are doing it for a sacrifice back in their home countries."

The town's diversity is evident even in the buildings seen driving through town.

"How many small towns do you know of (that) have the Christian churches that have been here for years, and now have added a synagogue for a couple of decades and also have a mosque?" Brackett said.

Many people impacted by the raid are now looking to a brighter future, and pushing for immigration reform.

That was one of the topics of an event held in Cedar Rapids Friday that McCauley co-organized, commemorating the five-year anniversary of the raid.

"Because of the terrible thing that happened, that has led many of us to advocacy," McCauley said.

"I don't think our current system allows for people to follow the law and be moral and caring and sensitive at the same time," Hernandez said. "I don't think that separating families is OK, ever."

Also looking to the future, Postville students who were brought unlawfully into the country as children now hold hopes of attending college.

That was an impossible goal until last June, when President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Initiative.

"You can attend college, you can have better opportunities at a job around the area, and you can do it legally," Nunez said, who hopes to attend college and work afterward in Iowa.

Postville's interim superintendent of schools John Rothlisberger said the initiative has served to keep in school students who might have otherwise dropped out.

"A lot of our students prior to that, you know, once they reached 16, it's one of the struggles we had was they're no longer required to be in school, so there wasn't a reason to be here if there wasn't a future beyond high school," he said.

Now there's a world of possibilities for both students and the entire community.

"The future is bright, and I think the people of Postville will take that and run with it," Brackett said.

Some in the community worry whether another situation like the 2008 raid could take place here or anywhere in the nation.

However, ICE public affairs officer Shawn Neudauer said the agency changed its work site enforcement strategy in 2009 -- just a year after the Postville raid.

"Under this Administration, ICE has implemented a number of strategic policy changes, including prioritizing convicted criminals and fundamentally changing the immigration detention system," Neudauer wrote in an e-mail.

"In 2009, ICE implemented a new work site enforcement strategy that emphasized the agency's major enforcement priorities -- specifically focusing (on) employers who cultivate illegal workplaces by breaking the country's laws and knowingly hiring illegal workers," he continued. "This strategy also reduced the need for large-scale immigration enforcement actions and focuses on form I-9 audits as an important administrative tool in building criminal cases and bringing employers into compliance with the law.

"ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on convicted criminals, egregious immigration law violators and recent border crossers."

Neudauer also pointed out the Agriprocessors raid happened in 2008 under a different administration.

More information on ICE's changes to its enforcement policies are detailed in the links below:

Detention Reform Fact Sheet:

Detention Reform Results:

Prosecutorial Discretion:

Civil Enforcement Priorities:

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