Iowa's hometown to the world: Postville immigration raid leaves lingering fears, new hopes
POSTVILLE — Nearly nine years have passed since immigration agents swooped into Postville, a northeastern Iowa town of fewer than 3,000, and arrested 389 undocumented workers.
Joy Minikwu was a new teacher at Postville High School that year. She remembers well the day when parents didn’t come to pick up their children, when buses carried handcuffed men and women away from the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant and when families left behind sought shelter at the Catholic church.
PHOTO GALLERY: Postville -- Iowa's hometown to the world
Though the students she taught back then have since graduated, the shadow of the May 12, 2008, raid still hangs over the town — and over the lives of her current students.
As an English Language Learner instructional coach for the district, she helps address the needs of the 40 percent of students in this tiny school district who speak a language other than English at home. At times, that means addressing their fears as well as their educational needs. With months of calls from then-candidate and now-President Donald Trump for increased deportations, those fears are heightened.
“It’s insecurity. It’s always in the back of their minds that things could always be uprooted and changed,” Minikwu said. “Everything is up in the air. There’s a nervous feeling; nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
A couple of weeks ago, a rumor circulated on Facebook that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were in the area. Many children were afraid to walk home, so the district arranged a shuttle to take them to their doors.
“We’re very protective of our kids and their current realities. The current reality is a lot of them are on edge,” high school Principal Brendan Knudtson said.
Though things have changed a lot here since 2008, this small community where a sign along the highway reads “Hometown to the World” is a microcosm of America’s reliance on immigrant labor — and what can happen when that system is upended.
Many of the elements found here are mirrored across Iowa. Meatpacking plants attract immigrant labor to harsh jobs American citizens often don’t want. A number of small, rural towns like Postville, including West Liberty, Columbus Junction and Marshalltown, now are at or near “majority-minority” status in their schools, meaning white students no longer are the majority. Along with Latino workers, plants also hire newcomers with refugee status — in Iowa in recent years, that has meant new immigrants from Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere.
That has been the case at the plant, now called Agri Star, where Somali immigrants are the newest wrinkle in Postville’s diversity — diversity that isn’t always easily accepted.
Knudtson said some of his students report racist comments on the sports field when they play against other small-town schools. And at Postville Shul, the private Jewish school serving the Hasidic families that come to work in the kosher plant, Principal Rashi Raices said insults have been yelled at children playing outside the building, and rocks have been thrown at Jewish men walking home from the synagogue on Friday nights.
She reads about threats against Jewish schools across the country, and she worries.
“Even though Postville is a dot on the map, it’s infamous. In America today, you have to be more careful,” she said.
Still, she said she feels accepted by her neighbors. She thinks the challenges people went through after the raid made the town stronger and more united.
“It’s a place which has learned a lot through its struggles,” she said. “Postvillians have learned to coexist.”
That learning hasn’t always been smooth or easy. She said she is understanding toward longtime residents who find adapting to changing demographics difficult.
“This is not the Postville they knew. Some people are not OK with change, and for some people it is easier,” she said. “It takes time and a lot of hard work.”
At times, she said misunderstandings can be cleared up with simple conversations. When she first arrived, she heard people were offended when their observant Jewish neighbors didn’t accept their invitations to coffee or dinner. They didn’t understand that the reason wasn’t lack of neighborliness, but rather concern about following strict kosher religious practices.
At the public high school, cultural competency training also helps teachers understand their students. Somali students, for example, may avoid eye contact — something their American-born teachers could interpret as a sign of disrespect without realizing that in Somali culture, making eye contact is the disrespectful thing to do.
Benefits and challenges
If immigration and demographic changes bring challenges, it also can bring economic benefits.
When Agriprocessors first opened in 1987, its workforce doubled the size of the town. After the raid, the town shrank by about 1,000.
Family members of those who were deported followed them back to Guatemala. Other families not caught up in the raid left in fear of future actions. Without customers, businesses closed. Houses and apartments were left empty. Property valuations went down, which meant lost tax dollars for the city. With its workforce gone, the plant struggled to stay open, eventually closing.
PHOTO GALLERY: Postville -- Iowa's hometown to the world
The plant has since reopened, under new ownership and with a new name — Agri Star — and the population has been returning.
A kosher store and a Guatemalan and a Mexican grocery store have reopened downtown. Latino families have started buying homes, helped in part by first-time homebuyer and revitalization grants the city government aggressively pursued.
City Clerk and Administrator Darcy Radloff has helped move the city’s budget out of the red, and property values are rising again.
And as other small Iowa school districts are losing students, Postville is gaining them. The district has grown by about 100 students in the past five years, a nearly 15 percent increase. Knudtson wonders if the district needs more classrooms.
"I would say we’re doing pretty good right now. We have never looked back or felt sorry for ourselves."
- Leigh Rekow
But there’s always the fear, he said — what if something happens to the plant again? What if we build, and the students suddenly aren’t here? The plant — and its workforce — are the lifeblood that keeps the town growing.
There are some other industries in or near the town, like Hall Roberts’ Son Inc., a seed-and-feed company, or dairy farms, and Radloff said she would like to see more economic diversity, still, to counter reliance on the plant. She would like people to see Postville for more than what happened here in 2008.
“A lot of people focus on the raid, but we’ve got a lot more to offer than just kosher jobs,” she said.
The Agri Star plant did not respond to a request for an interview.
Mayor Leigh Rekow said he thinks Postville is on an upswing.
“I would say we’re doing pretty good right now,” he said. “We have never looked back or felt sorry for ourselves.”
He said Agri Star uses E-Verify to make sure its workers have legal status. But that doesn’t mean children with uncertain legal status aren’t still a big part of the school district.
Knudtson said many of the students have DACA status — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that gives those who arrived illegally as minors temporary relief from deportation and work eligibility.
Others are here on “U visas,” which provide legal status for crime victims and their families. Some of those arrested in the raid returned with U visas to testify against the plant’s managers.
Agriprocessors chief executive Sholom Rubashkin is serving a 27-year sentence for financial fraud, and other managers are in prison for bank fraud and helping immigrants obtain false work papers.
Other students are living with aunts or uncles while awaiting distant immigration court dates to determine their futures. And, of course, many are here as legal residents.
“We don’t get to pick and choose at any time who we open our doors to,” Knudtson said. “Legal or not, I don’t care, I don’t know, I don’t ask. I don’t get into it. We have too many important things to do here.”
School district to the world
The Postville district is not big. The class of 2016 had 29 students, and the school’s total K-12 enrollment is about 750.
But for such a small school district, the challenges are big. Forty percent of the student body speak a language other than English at home, and about 14 languages are spoken in the school.
The district has hired full-time translators for Spanish and Somali, six English Language Learner teachers, and started different tracks and programs to get students caught up.
Some students who arrive have had interrupted educations as their families moved from place to place. Others arrived as teenagers who never attended school at all or have for only a few years. Some of their students are over 18 — they can keep attending until they turn 21, and the district tries to get them as close to a diploma as possible before they age out.
Along with language and educational background barriers come emotional traumas of children who have been living in refugee camps, fled war or witnessed gang violence.
“People don’t understand our students, they don’t understand where they’re coming from and their emotional struggles,” Minikwu said.
Somali, Saudi immigrants
The Somali students started arriving five years ago. Many came from Minneapolis, Boston or other cities. Their parents like Postville for its small-town benefits of safety, quietness and the school.
One of those parents, Mohamed Abdi, arrived in 2015 to join his wife, who found a job at Agri Star.
They previously had lived in Minneapolis, and now their six daughters are enrolled in Postville schools, where Abdi works as a translator and liaison to the Somali community, working with new arrivals and their parents.
He said there are worries in the community about Trump’s executive orders on immigration, which include a ban on new visas for Somalis. The latest order, issued March 6, was blocked by two federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland.
PHOTO GALLERY: Postville -- Iowa's hometown to the world
“Every family in Somalia wants to reunite with their families here, so the order makes them really scared,” he said.
Still, he said he always has felt welcome in Postville.
“I like Postville. It’s very clean, a small town, with no crime or violence,” he said. “We feel integrated into the other communities here. We’re happy to be here.”
So is Lul Abdullahi, a multilingual paraeducator for the district. She speaks Somali and Arabic in addition to English, and graduated from Postville High School last year after her family moved to Iowa from Saudi Arabia four years ago. She said she has found happiness here.
“Postville is my second home. It’s very accepting and understanding,” she said. “It’s a second home to every student here.”
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