Kosher Plant Workers Find Refuge in Local Church

By Marissa Brostoff

Published May 29, 2008, issue of June 06, 2008.

While a recent raid on the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse has been big news in the Jewish community, in the town where the raid took place, the most visible effect has been on the local Catholic Church, St. Bridget’s.

St. Bridget’s church has long been a hub of the Hispanic community in Postville, Iowa, where immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico first began arriving almost two decades ago to staff the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse.

On May 12, however, the community was hit by what is apparently the largest single immigration raid in United States history. A total of 389 Agriprocessors employees were arrested and charged with identity theft — a federal crime — as well as with illegal immigration, which falls under the purview of immigration courts. Of these employees, 260 have been sentenced to five months in prison before they are deported.

Since the raid, St. Bridget’s, which is on a side street in the middle of Postville, has become a combination legal aid office, health clinic and food bank. Each day, dozens of workers who were arrested, and have been released, converge at the church, waiting for information about their relatives — and for their own eventual deportation. The church has also functioned as a shelter for people afraid to return to their homes.

“Initially, there was a constant fear that immigration was coming back to do another raid,” said David Vasquez, a campus pastor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, who has spent the last two weeks volunteering at St. Bridget’s.

“It’s their safe haven,” said Postville Herald-Leader editor Sharon Drahn, who has visited the church since the raid. “There have probably been upward of a hundred volunteers” not just from Postville but also from around northeast Iowa, she added.

Agriprocessors employed 968 workers until the raid, when a large portion of its work force was arrested. The plant, which has since been running at a fraction of its standard production rate, brought in replacement workers from a much smaller Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Gordon, Neb. However, Avi Lyon, a consultant for the meatpacking union United Food and Commercial Workers, said that most of those workers have returned to Gordon because of difficult conditions in the plant and because of monetary bonuses that did not come through.

Both men and women were arrested in the raid, but most of the women who have young children have been released. They are back in Postville, fastened with surveillance bracelets that prevent them from leaving town. Some fathers who are primary caregivers were released, as well, but the 100 or so people gathering at St. Bridget’s each day are predominantly women and children.

The gathered masses have spent much of their time trying to learn the whereabouts of the hundreds of former Agriprocessors workers who have been sentenced to five-month jail terms. According to Vasquez, volunteers and staff members at the church have identified at least 14 jails where former Agriprocessors employees are being held before they are moved to a federal prison or deported. Each of those jails has a different policy on contacting inmates, complicating efforts to put family members in touch with each other. The makeshift federal court where the immigrants were tried has not released a list of the prisoners and their sentences, so the whereabouts and legal status of some detainees are still unknown.

In Postville, the more immediate concern has been the daily sustenance of the people who were arrested and then released.

Many Agriprocessors workers and their families live, or lived, in an apartment building owned by an affiliate of the company. According to Paul Ouderkirk, a priest in the church’s Hispanic ministry, residents of that building report having been suddenly threatened with eviction about a week before the end of May, on the grounds that the company needs to turn over the units to new Agriprocessors workers.

The company did not return calls for comment.

After the first days following the raid, officials pushed workers who had encamped at St. Bridget’s to return to their homes, because of a spate of burglaries at their apartments.

“People were breaking in and stealing things they’d left behind,” Ouderkirk said. “Somebody broke in and stole everything pertaining to IDs and personal papers” from some apartments.

Agriprocessors has mostly kept a low profile since the raid, according to locals. While church workers say that the company sent over food initially, since then, Ouderkirk says, there has been “silence.” The church, though, has begun to see a stream of donations from Jewish communities outside Postville.

“We’re hearing from Jewish folks all over the country,” said Paul Real, a lay pastor in the Hispanic ministry. “They’re sending monetary contributions to the church.”

For now, St. Bridget’s staff members and volunteers agree that their most important task is keeping the families who turn up at the church together, fed and healthy until they are, most likely, deported.

“The future of the community as a whole is very uncertain,” Vasquez said of Postville.



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