Friday, May 15, 2009

Postville: One Year Later

By Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas

It’s been a year since the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. That was the day Pedrito’s Mom was taken, and he has not seen her since. For Postville, May 12 is a day that will live in infamy.

A year later, the welcome signs still stand: “Iowa, Fields of Opportunity,” “Postville, Hometown to the World,” and “Agriprocessors, A Great Place to Work!” The town would like to forget and move on, but nothing will ever be the same. Four times the world has come to Postville to mark its rise and fall: the Railroad (1864), Barnum & Bailey (1915), Agriprocessors (1987), and the Feds (2008).

There was a time when folks of 24 nationalities, speaking 17 languages, found their dream of freedom in this two-square-mile community with no traffic lights, nestled amid a sea of cornfields. The town was hailed as a model of ethnic integration for communities across the country. “I wish you had seen my town as it was before,” a teary local muttered. “It used to be a success story.”

Now, the social fabric is torn and the folks must pick up the pieces. The raid claimed three quarters of the plant’s employees, one third of the school children, and nearly half of the town’s population. As rooted family workers were taken, newcomers and drifters moved in. Crime followed. Folks who never locked their doors were afraid to walk the streets. Agents prowled among the drifters. People looked over their shoulder and whispered. Fear was in the air.

When the helicopters came and 900 armed agents stormed the town, children were hidden in basements for as long as two weeks, and fed under the door. Pedrito’s mom said “Take me. I’m alone in this country.” School children of all colors were living in fear. Many had nightmares that their parents too were taken away.

Close to 100 immigrant and 55 U.S.-born citizen children were either forced into exile and poverty or separated from their deported parents. As her mom sat in prison and was deported, Pedrito’s little sister went every day to her bedroom and talked to her, pretending she was still there. Pedrito has written a letter to President Obama and the First Lady, pleading “Give my Mom a three-day visa, so she can come to my middle school graduation, and see that I kept my promise.” Will he receive a response?

A year later, there are still 28 women forbidden to work or to leave with GPS ankle monitors waiting for a deportation hearing. Another 12 adults and 30 children still wait in legal limbo. After serving their sentence, 41 men were forced to come back as material witness against the employer. They were given temporary work permits, but work is scarce. As a twist of irony, almost half of them are back at Agriprocessors.

The plant was never able to replace the workers taken by the raid. Mounting expenses and sanctions drove Agriprocessors into bankruptcy. A massive debt remains unpaid; money stopped flowing into town; businesses closed; storefronts sit empty; homes are in foreclosure; revenue plummeted; and the mayor resigned. The enforcement medicine worked, but it killed the patient. Nobody is the better for it.

The cost of the raid, prosecution, and deportation to taxpayers exceeds $15 million and counting. The regional loss of business from Agriprocessors’ downfall surpasses $200 million per year, which means the further loss of hundreds of American jobs. Greenspan was right. Migrants, as it turns out, create higher-level jobs for Americans.

The significance of Postville is that it shows the devastation that our ill-conceived enforcement policy is having in communities across the country. While in larger cities the impact is diluted and easier to deny, here the ill has nowhere to hide. Postville is ground zero for comprehensive immigration reform.

A year later, the town forgives. Officials forget. The nation remembers.
Camayd is a professor of modern languages at Florida International University.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 5/09