Immigration Fight Splits Locals in Iowa Town

By Nathaniel Popper

Published June 23, 2006, issue of June 23, 2006.
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POSTVILLE, Iowa — This rural town’s reservoir of neighborly good will has been drained in recent weeks by an increasingly personal debate about the immigrants lining up for work at the local slaughterhouse — the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant.

At a packed town council meeting June 12, seven local clergy members, including a rabbi, issued a statement that denounces members of the town council for making critical comments about the Mexicans, Guatemalans and Jews who work at the slaughterhouse.

A few weeks earlier, the council’s most vocal anti-immigrant member, Jeff Reinhardt, wrote in the local paper that the town’s Hispanics have “a lack of respect for our laws and culture which contributes to unwed mothers, trash in the streets, unpaid bills, drugs, forgery, and other crimes.” He also criticized what he described as the isolated ways of Postville’s Hasidic Jews.

The town of Postville was upended and remade by the arrival of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim who came to town in 1989 to open AgriProcessors. Just as the dust was settling from their arrival, Hispanic workers began showing up to look for jobs. In total, over the past decade, 500 to 1,000 have come — almost doubling the town’s population and significantly altering its ethnic mix.

While this dose of diversity seemed to be going down smoothly for a number of years — after a number of initial clashes — last fall’s council elections saw four of five seats go to candidates, including Reinhardt, who were openly critical of the town’s changing face. Since then, the council has scaled back relations with AgriProcessors. It also has cut funding for the local visitors center that had worked with the Hispanic immigrants.

But the story in Postville is more complex than the old archetype of the locals turning against the newcomers. In Postville, there are a number of old-timers who love the new worldliness of Postville and have found themselves at odds with locals who want the good old days back.

In the latest sign of that divide, one of Postville’s biggest cheerleaders for diversity, public works director Gary Simmons, announced his resignation and departure from town, pointing to the “bigoted statements” of the town council. He departed just as the county sheriff began an investigation into phone taps at city hall, which Simmons had discovered a few weeks earlier.

“You see that there is an effort to turn back the clocks here, and that is troubling,” Simmons said from his old office in the petite city hall. “We’re opening back up our wounds that had been closed.”

A few weeks before Simmons’s move, the director of the town’s visitors center — an affable lifelong Postvillean named Nina Taylor — announced that she would be packing up and moving to nearby Decorah because of the soured climate in town. From her office behind the town’s gift shop, where glass figurines of rabbis stood in display cases, Taylor had organized tours of Postville for Iowans from towns with no Mexican or kosher restaurants.

“We told the story about the good effects of diversity,” Taylor said. “I’m going to miss it drastically.”

Taylor’s departure also spells the end of an event that is one of the most visible annual signs of Postville’s diversity, the Taste of Postville. For the past eight years, Taylor has organized the local summer event where the town’s ethnic groups set up stands with falafel and enchiladas on Greene St. Without a visitors center, the August event had to be canceled this year. The other big community event, Agricultural Days, was also canceled this year because of the divide between city council and civic leaders.

Even with the cancellations, the diverse fringes of this farm town are never far from sight. On Saturdays, the one day that the slaughterhouse is closed, the streets are filled with Jews walking to synagogue and with Mexicans standing in line to send remittance checks back home. The main intersection in town is dominated by Sabor Latino, a Mexican grocery and restaurant where the best tacos in northern Iowa are prepared.

But Postville’s chief of police, Mike Halse, said there are other, less heartwarming signs of the newcomers. Because many of the immigrants are undocumented, they are unable to get a driver’s license or car insurance. There have been a number of instances when drivers simply have left town without a trace after being involved in an accident.

More upsetting, according to the town’s mayor, Bob Penrod, was that before his administration, many Hispanics “never mowed their lawns — they just let garbage pile up. We’re trying to get the policies reinforced so we have a cleaner town.”

For his part, Reinhardt believes the town’s primary problem is that AgriProcessors has hired immigrants at “the lowest possible rates,” driving down wages in the area.

“Once people stop taking advantage of illegal immigrants, then everything will get better,” he said.

Postville has a history of conflict revolving around AgriProcessors and the new faces it has brought to town. The book “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,” follows the battles in the 1990s, when AgriProcessors resisted a proposal by the town council to annex the land on which AgriProcessors sits (the measure ended up passing).

The editor of the Postville Herald Leader said that last week’s town council meeting about diversity was the largest and most emotional since those earlier debates about annexation.

There is still a great deal of self-segregation in the area. Most Hispanics live in a few large apartment buildings and trailer parks on the edges of town. But since the annexation debates, there have been major strides toward ethnic cooperation. One of the major opponents of AgriProcessors during the annexation debate has now become one of its biggest supporters on city council. And in 2001, the owner of the local mattress store, Aaron Goldsmith, became the first Jewish member of the council.

“We were on the positive, up and up, for a long time,” said Goldsmith, who gave up his post in 2003 because he felt the town no longer needed his services. “To me, an honest view will see that in Postville’s case the water has risen for everyone.”

The benefits of the newcomers are evident in the Postville school district, which recently constructed a new auditorium and track with state grants. Most other nearby school districts in rural Iowa — where the population is aging — have had to merge schools, but not Postville. The children of immigrants have helped stabilize the school’s population. In addition, the growing multilingual population has allowed the school to win more than $2 million in grants over the past three years. With some of that funding, the school will start a program this fall to ensure that every student is bilingual by eighth grade.

“Without the immigrants, we wouldn’t even have a school to write grants for,” said David Strudthoff, the school’s superintendent.

When it comes to crime in town, there was a spike in the mid 1990s, with the number of arrests jumping to 28 in 1998 from seven in 1992. But in the past three years there actually has been a decline, with the number of arrests dropping to 12. There also has been as a drop in the incidents of disorderly conduct.

Simmons, the public works director who just resigned from his post, recently established a committee that gave local Hispanics and town officials a chance to sit down and talk about their expectations and disappointments with each other.

All of which raises the question of why the fury has bubbled up now. Townspeople on all sides of the fence say it is only a coincidence that the town’s confrontation is coming at the same time that the national debate on immigration has become so hostile.

Stephen Bloom, the author of the book “Postville,” believes that the current tensions have less to do with the immigrants and more to do with the Jewish owners of AgriProcessors. Bloom said that residents have longstanding concerns about AgriProcessors and its workers, but they were afraid that public criticism might drive the company — the town’s economic engine — to leave. Now, he said, it is clear that the plant is here to stay, so people are speaking out.

“People on the council feel empowered to say things they only whispered in the past,” Bloom said.

Indeed, the new town council members said they were motivated to run for office because they believed that the old town council had grown too close to AgriProcessors, taking paid trips to New York and Europe on the company.

But in a town of this size, there is also the matter of personal politics. For instance, the current mayor, Penrod, was director of public works before Gary Simmons, and Simmons says that Penrod has been pushing to take back his old job.

Simmons said that when he first came to his job, seven years ago, he found that the telephones had been set up with recording devices, which he subsequently disconnected. A few weeks ago, Simmons told the Forward, he discovered that the phones throughout city hall had been wired. The Allamakee County sheriff is currently investigating the matter.

Whatever the investigation turns up, the battles over the town’s future will continue in council meetings until at least the next local elections. But the school superintendent is hopeful that calm will return.

“Right now in our city, our pendulum has swung as far right as you can get,” Strudthoff said. “The citizens will pull the pendulum back.”






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