Marching With the Faithful in Iowa

Letter From Postville, Iowa

By Micah Maidenberg

Published July 31, 2008, issue of August 08, 2008.
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Inside St. Bridget’s church, the conversations I heard moved between English and Spanish, and the prayers switched between Christian and Jewish. Outside, young girls from Guatemala and Mexico mingled with graying Jewish activists from Minnesota and Chicago. This was all part of a warm-up for a very unusual march.

The crowds had come here for an afternoon protest march that led them to the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse — the kosher plant that was the subject of a federal immigration raid in May in which nearly 400 workers were arrested. In addition to the people who had come to support the immigrants, a smaller contingent was in town to tell the immigrants to go home. Then there were the Postville locals, some of whom set up chairs along the route of the one-and-a-half mile-long march.

Postville has hosted such festivals as Dairy Days and the Taste of Postville — and it has gotten used to diversity after years of hosting a slaughterhouse that brought Hasidic Jews and workers from Eastern Europe and Central America to this rural corner of northeastern Iowa. But Sharon Drahn, editor of the Postville Herald-Leader, said that Sunday’s march was unprecedented.

“It was the first time ever we had a march/rally/walk. But I thought they did a good job,” Drahn said of the organizers.

My own trip to Postville began at 7 a.m., when two buses pulled out from Beth Emet synagogue in suburban Chicago. After a rest stop in Wisconsin, Royal Berg, a Chicago immigration lawyer, and Sister Pat Murphy, a Chicago nun, talked about the plight of illegal immigrants and made the case for comprehensive reform of the immigration system.

Soon after crossing the Mississippi River, the buses arrived in town. Postville bore a striking resemblance to my own hometown in Indiana, with its tidy green lawns and ranch houses spread around a small brick downtown. My patch of the Midwest, though, never had a Judaica shop or a store catering to Guatemalans.

The gathering spot for the marchers was the Catholic Church, just off the main street. The bus I came in was one of two sponsored by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a Chicago-based social justice group. In Minnesota, Jewish Community Action organized five buses; two were from Camp Ramah, a camp in Wisconsin that had stopped using Agriprocessors kosher meats after the immigration raid.

Reverend Paul Ouderkirk, the Postville priest, said that the Catholic contingent was made up of hundreds of Catholic clergy and laypeople from nearby towns in Iowa and Wisconsin.

“It was one of those moments when you see people on the same page,” Ouderkirk said during a phone interview after the march. “They wouldn’t have come so far if it weren’t for justice.”

The march began just after 2 p.m. and wound its way down Williams Street, to the plant and back to Lawler Street, Postville’s main drag.

At one point, I was walking near a woman from Mexico named Guadalupe. She is one of the dozens of women who were arrested in the raid and then released, and she still wore a black electronic monitoring device around one ankle. It didn’t seem to slow her down. Still, when I asked her what her own future held, she answered, “I don’t know.”

As the march was getting under way, I broke off to speak with some of the locals who had come out to watch. A waitress at the pasteleria, or bakery, who declined to give her name said she never had any problems with the local Hispanics including her boss.

“They’re good people,” she said, “A lot of people wished that the raid never happened, because of the people they brought in.”

She was speaking about the revolving door of workers who have come to town since the raid took away most of the factory’s Hispanic work force: First, there was a group of Native Americans from another plant that Agriprocessors owns; then there were reports of jobless people being brought in from Texas; the latest group to give it a try is composed of Somalian and Sudanese immigrants from nearby states.

Ruth Bruns, who has lived in Postville for 40 years, said the town had just gotten used to “brown faces” and now there were black ones, too.

“We aren’t used to that here,” she explained, saying the Guatemalans who had previously worked at the plant were family oriented, unlike newcomers who, she said, drink and don’t go to church.

The relationship between the new workers and the plant has also been rocky. The Des Moines Register reported that some of the Somalis were frustrated by the way Agriprocessors treated them.

But some of the newcomers who came out to watch the parade were more upbeat. Abdirahman Dagane, a 20-year-old who came to Postville from Kansas, was standing in front of an empty store downtown. Dagane said he was set to start work the next day and was eager to start earning money. He said he was promised $10 per hour, substantially more than previous reports detailing Agriprocessors’ wage.

The march finally wrapped up at the Agriprocessors facility, a long, low-slung set of industrial buildings made of corrugated white metal. At the plant, five signs advertised the fact that the company was hiring; one said, “A Great Place to Work.”

Outside the plant gates, Rabbi Harold Kravitz of the Adath Jeshurun synagogue in Minnetonka, Minn., spoke about the Jewish basis for worker rights. As Kravitz spoke, Getzel Rubashkin, a grandson of the owner of Agriprocessors, emerged and stole the attention of many reporters.

“Agriprocessors doesn’t have any positions on immigration. Agriprocessors doesn’t have positions on ethical culture,” said Rubashkin, who had a curly beard and glasses. “It’s a business.”

Hasidic workers wearing yarmulkes and knee-high rubber boots came out from the plant to listen in, some of them smiling curiously. Responding to questions about potential legal troubles his family may face stemming from the raid, Rubashkin said, “God watches out for people who do good.”

As the parade wound its way back downtown, it met with a cluster of around 100 anti-immigrant protesters stationed on the sidewalk in the heart of downtown. Town, county and state police officers stood between the two groups, and a fire truck was parked on Lawler Street.

One woman was dressed as the Statue of Liberty, while a man had donned his old Navy uniform and sunglasses. Signs among this crowd read, “It may be kosher but it’s not legal.” A few marchers and counter-protesters traded chants of “Viva Mexico!” and “USA! USA!”

The marchers gathered in front of St. Bridget’s again, and heard from Postville’s mayor, workers from the Postville plant and top officials from the Jewish organizations that assembled the crowds.

As the final speaker, a chaplain from a nearby college, finished his remarks, the sky grew dark, and first drops of rain began to fall, turning quickly into a brief driving force. A group of young Latino marchers jumped onto the stage, laughing as they became soaked. A little different from the usual Dairy Day.

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