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Mothers' Day Marks Five-Year Anniversary of Brutal ICE Raid in Postville, Iowa

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This Sunday–Mothers’ Day–will mark the five-year anniversary of the Postville, Iowa immigration raid, still one of the largest in history. Our colleague, Matt Hildreth, who lives in Iowa, is at events marking the anniversary and will have a report later. Here’s an excerpt from last year’s New York Times article, which tells the story:

Around 10 on a clear May morning in 2008, two black helicopters circled over Postville, Iowa, a town of two square miles and fewer than 3,000 residents. Then a line of S.U.V.’s drove past Postville’s main street and its worn brick storefronts. More than 10 white buses with darkened windows and the words “Homeland Security” on their sides were on their way to the other side of town. Postville’s four-man police force had no forewarning of what was about to happen. Neither did the mayor.

The procession of S.U.V.’s, buses and state-trooper cars were descending on Agriprocessors, the largest producer of kosher meat in the United States and Postville’s biggest employer, which occupies 60 acres on the edge of town. Several silos clustered together like old, overgrown tin cans behind the plant’s chain-link fence. Low-slung, rusted metal buildings — one with a 10-foot menorah mounted on its top — contained hundreds of workers, chickens and cattle.

The early shift at Agri, as Postville residents call it, had been under way for several hours when dozens of agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, dressed in black flak vests, stormed the plant’s buildings. Workers shouted, “La migra, la migra” (immigration police), dropped their butcher and boning knives and fled from their jobs at the cutting and grinding machines. A group of women ran to a bathroom and locked themselves in the stalls before I.C.E. agents forced them out. A couple of men scaled Agri’s fence and hid in the cornfield across the street, where they remained until the next morning. Others climbed onto the roof near the smokestack of the chicken-processing building. From there, one man called a friend from his cellphone: “Take care of my children,” he pleaded.

Fermin Loyes Lopez, a 27-year-old father from Guatemala who had been living in Postville for five years, found his wife, Rosa Zamora Santos, who worked the same shift, cutting chicken meat off breast bones. One of their daughters, a toddler, was with a baby sitter; the other, a 5-year-old, was in kindergarten. After a quick call to the baby sitter, Lopez counseled his wife: “Tell them the truth,” he said, referring to the I.C.E. agents, just before he was arrested. “Tell them your real name. Tell them we have children.”

Meanwhile, several blocks away, on Lawler, the town’s main street, Elver Herrera, a former plant worker who ran the local bakery, hid Latinos in an apartment above his store. The head of the local Catholic Church’s Hispanic ministry raced to a nearby apartment complex where many Latino families lived and handed out printed information about undocumented immigrants’ rights, while a school counselor went door to door, telling families to stay away from the plant.

Within hours of the raid — which I.C.E. had planned for months, based on evidence that large numbers of Agri’s employees used suspect or false Social Security numbers and that plant managers hired minors and violated other labor laws — I.C.E. agents detained 389 undocumented workers, most of them Guatemalan. (Agri employed more than 900 workers, over three shifts.) The agents handcuffed the wrists of the men and women and loaded them into the Homeland Security buses. With one state-trooper vehicle in front of each bus and another behind, they drove 75 miles to Waterloo, Iowa. There, I.C.E. had transformed an 80-acre fairgrounds, the National Cattle Congress, into a temporary processing center for the workers. Many of the detainees, including Lopez, were then sent to prisons throughout the country, where they would spend five months before being deported to Guatemala.

Back in Postville, about 400 residents poured into St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which would become the town’s de facto relief center in the months to come. Women, men and children ate at the church and slept in the pews, afraid I.C.E. might be waiting for them at home.

A piece at USA Today this morning has more on the long-lasting effects of the raid.  With the Agriprocessor plant missing half of its workers, the town’s largest employer struggled to stay open, and lines grew at the local pantry.  The plant eventually closed, then re-opened under new ownership.  Altogether, nearly a fifth of the entire town’s 2,200 or so residents were removed in a matter of hours, which devastated the local economy and community.

It also changed the way people thought about immigration and deportation.  The Postville raid was a flashy show of force, that enforcement agents planned for months and cost $5 million.  It split apart families, terrorized immigrants, and changed a community.  As Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, told USA Today, “Postville was the turning point in the deportation-only approach to dealing with immigrants here illegally.  The raid and the broad community destruction was a preview of what deporting 11 or 12 million immigrants and their families would look like.”

The anniversary of Postville has special significance coming in the middle of the current immigration debate, and right after the Senate Judiciary Committee has begun markup of the Gang of 8 bill.  Committee members like Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have made it clear that they want to stall and kill the immigration legislation.  But as Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wanted to know yesterday, what is the alternative?  Forced mass deportation as was seen in Postville–on the scale of removing millions, which would be impossible?  The terrorization of immigrants so that they’re forced to deport themselves?  Or a common sense solution that recognizes immigrants that contribute to our country and brings them out of the shadows?

The documentary filmmaker Luis Argueta has created a short film on the 2008 raid.  View the trailer here.  And view this video from Sister Mary McCauley, of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was one of the community responders to the raid five years ago: