An event in Cedar Rapids over the noon hour today will commemorate the fifth anniversary of an immigration raid in the small northeast Iowa town of Postville. The community and the town’s largest employer, a kosher meatpacking plant, landed in the national spotlight five years ago this coming Sunday as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents moved in.
Candy Siebert, who runs the Tidy Wave Laundromat in Postville, describes May 12, 2008 as “a day of chaos.” She says Postville turned into a ghost town.
“Everybody disappeared from sight,” Siebert recalls. Nearly 400 people were arrested and their family members sought refuge in churches. A number of things made the enforcement action different from any other. There were a large number of law enforcement personnel, some of them hovered in a helicopter for hours over the plant, they carried military style weapons, and those who were arrested were loaded onto buses and transported to makeshift courtrooms in Waterloo.
Anthropology professor Mark Grey heads the New Iowan Center at the University of Northern Iowa. “A lot of us in the business had seen other immigration raids. We’d seen the consequences, we had seen what it did to the plants, the workers, and the communities. But, this one really turned things up a notch or two,” Grey says.
The chief executive of Agri-Processors, Shalom Rubaskin, was eventually charged with providing fake identification for the workers and defrauding banks of millions of dollars. Aaron Goldsmith, an Orthodox Jew, is a former Postville City Council member. He says having Rubaskin at the center of the scandal was a great opportunity for hate groups to come forward, or for bigotry, but it never happened.
“Postville rose above that and did what was right to try and pick up the town and move together,” Goldsmith says. “There was no effort by anybody, to my knowledge, to say ‘let’s get all the Jews out of town, cause look what happened.’ It was just the opposite. Many people felt what happened was outrageous, beyond measure, completely insensitive, and embarrassing as Americans and as Iowans.”
Five years later, the rebuilding both inside and outside the town is continuing. Along with the Laundromat, Candy Seibert manages about 100 rental units. She says they’re all full, many with Somalian refugees who have come from Minnesota to work at the reopened and newly named Agri-Star plant.
“Diversity has its challenges for sure,” Seibert says. “With a new group, comes a new set of challenges. It takes a while to get through that, but the store fronts are filling. And that’s kind of recent, which is a good sign.” Pastor Steve Brackett, with St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Postville, says he believes local residents are focused on the future, but won’t soon forget the events of May 12, 2008 and the months that followed.
“There’s a lot of pain there and it doesn’t matter which group of people you talk to, you’re going to find that. The lifelong residents of Postville do not want Postville is in the news, because if Postville is in the news, it’s for something negative,” Brackett says.
“So, my hope is as people look at where Postville is today, they’ll focus on all the positive things that are happening.” The event in Cedar Rapids today includes what organizers are calling a “remembrance ritual,” a “walk for justice,” and a prayer vigil “for reconciliation and call for reform.”