Sunday, May 12, marks the fifth anniversary of the massive immigration raid that shook Postville, Iowa, in 2008.
Some 1,000 federal, state and local agents descended on the tiny town, population 2,200, and arrested 389 undocumented immigrants working at the town’s largest employer, Agriprocessors, then the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. To mark the anniversary, immigration rights activists in Iowa organized an interfaith commemoration in Cedar Rapids, the state’s second largest city, where the detainees were taken for processing.
Sunday being Mother’s Day, though, the organizers decided to assemble on Friday, May 10. The original starting time was 3:00 p.m., but it was moved to noon so that a key speaker, Rabbi Morris Allen, could get home to the Twin Cities before Shabbat. Allen was an early leader of the Jewish community’s response to Postville — his is the nearest community with a significant kosher consuming population — and a commemoration wouldn’t be complete without him.
The raid itself was a watershed event. It was the biggest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history to that date. It also marked the first mass use of criminal charges rather than simple deportation in immigration enforcement. Nearly 300 pled guilty to document fraud, based on fake IDs they used to get jobs, and served five months in prison before being deported to Guatemala and Mexico. Families were split up, the town was devastated and the company eventually went bankrupt. They’ve all recovered, more or less, but the wounds are still raw.
The plant’s practices also touched off a nationwide Jewish debate over the meaning of kosher laws. That’s progressed a bit more unevenly.
Speaking by phone before the event, Allen was fired up and ready to go, but there was a tinge of melancholy. Of course, he said passionately, what happened in Postville in 2008 was shocking. Of course it showed the need for immigration reform so that immigrant workers can come out of the shadows and “become part of the American tapestry,” he said. Reform is needed, too, to deter the human traffickers who supply American business with low-wage workers. All true, and he’s proud to be involved.
But that’s not what first brought him to Postville. He took notice two years before the raid — Memorial Day weekend 2006, he remembers — when the Forward published an investigative report about labor conditions at Agriprocessors.