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ICE raid devastated tiny Midwest town; 10 years later, it's still recovering

By Jessie Higgins
1/13
ICE raid devastated tiny Midwest town; 10 years later, it's still recovering
Postville was once a secluded farming town. Photo by Jessie Higgins/UPI

POSTVILLE, Iowa, Aug. 29 (UPI) -- A tiny Midwestern town where a decade ago federal agents carried out America's largest immigration raid shows what can happen to a community in the aftermath.

In one afternoon, Postville, Iowa, population 2,200, lost nearly 20 percent of its residents. Houses stood vacant. Businesses abruptly closed. Most of the remaining residents lost their jobs. The economy collapsed.

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Ten years later, the community is still recovering.

"It was like they dropped a nuclear bomb on us," said Aaron Goldsmith, a business owner and longtime resident of Postville. "The community floundered terribly."

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The Postville raid occurred at the very end of George W. Bush's presidency -- a time when large-scale raids were fairly common. Such raids stopped under the Obama administration, then resumed after Donald Trump was elected president.

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In April, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested about 100 people from a Tennessee meat packing plant. In June, officers raided an Ohio gardening company, arresting 114 people, then another meat packing plant in Ohio, arresting nearly 150. On Tuesday, agents detained over 100 people at a Texas plant.

The trend has some in America's heartland concerned about the economic impact to the communities left behind.

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Small towns disappearing

The Midwest, especially the rural Midwest, is losing population. Between 2000 and 2015, about 1.4 million native-born Midwesterners moved out of the region, said John Austin, the director of the Michigan Economic Center, who studies economic development.

Small towns are disappearing as rural economies stagnate, he said.

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The only clear exceptions are communities that attract immigrants, Austin said. Small towns with large immigrant populations see economic revivals that more homogenous communities do not.

This was the case in Postville.

Nestled in the hills of northern Iowa, Postville was a secluded farming town. Like many towns around it, by the 1970s Postville's population was in steady decline. That changed suddenly in 1987 when a Hasidic Jewish businessman opened a Kosher meat-processing plant and started recruiting Latino immigrants to work. A community of Hasidic Jews came to oversee plant operations.

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The newcomers "weren't really accepted at first," said Mel Brink, a lifelong Postville resident who owns a second-hand shop on Main Street. "People here were used to knowing everybody, and suddenly there were all these new people and I don't know them."

Most Postville residents say that quickly changed as families from the new communities bought houses, enrolled their children in school and became part of the town.

"Most of the workers were from Guatemala," said Goldsmith, a Jewish man who moved to Postville shortly after the plant opened to be part of a rural Jewish community. "They were our neighbors. In terms of character they were decent people, family people."

They were also undocumented.

'A great silence fell'

The plant, Agriprocessors, Inc., hired undocumented immigrants who would work long days under stressful conditions, said Maria Maizir, a former Agriprocessors worker who still lives in Postville.

Immigration officials began investigating the plant in October 2007, with the help of the FBI. They found evidence that the plant was creating fake immigration documents for its employees, and that managers were committing other financial crimes.

On May 12, 2008, ICE raided.

Officers armed with rifles arrived that afternoon by the busload and surrounded the town. With a helicopter flying overhead, they entered the slaughterhouse. The scene was chaotic. Latino workers who were not immediately arrested fled the plant, while officers chased them down in the streets.

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"Many people went to hide in the Catholic church," Maizir said, speaking in Spanish. "People were running. Some were trying to get to their children at school. It was horrible. Afterward, a great silence fell over all of Postville for a long time."

The plant employed most of the town, either directly or through the various businesses that supported it, Goldsmith said. So by the next morning, most of Postville was out of work.

Families could no longer pay their bills. Many could not afford food. They flocked to the Catholic church for help, and the clergy did their best to feed everyone, Maizir said.

Foreclosure signs appeared all over town.

"A lot of people lost everything," said Brink, who was a truck driver for Agriprocessors before the plant closed. She and her husband had enough money saved to keep their house until they could find work again.

"It was unpleasant, but we were okay," she said. "Not like some of our other neighbors."

Those who were unable to find work left Postville.

In the years that followed, the dozens of permanently vacant houses and shuttered businesses sent property values plummeting.

The local government could no longer bring in enough tax revenue to pay its bills.

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The town nearly collapsed.

New, diverse population

What saved Postville was the same thing that revived its economy in the first place -- immigrants.

In 2009, another Jewish businessman from Canada bought and reopened the meatpacking plant. The new plant, now called Agri Star, recruited immigrants -- legally -- from all over the world to work. And as production increased, the Postville economy slowly stabilized.

Postville today is even more diverse than before the raid. In addition to the Orthodox Jewish and Latino communities, there are also groups of Muslim immigrants from Somalia, and several from eastern Europe.

Along Main Street, a recently remodeled Islamic Center sits one block down from a kosher market, which is across the street from a Latino apostolic church.

"I guarantee that this is the only building probably in the world where you'll find an Orthodox synagogue and a Somali store next to each other," Nathan Thompson, the Postville project coordinator for Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development, said as he pointed to a Main Street building.

Today in Postville, there are still many vacant storefronts, but most of the houses are once again full. And the town's people expect that their economy will continue to grow.

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"We lost a lot in the raid," Goldsmith said. "It caused a lot of heartache. But it's a testament to this town's quality that it didn't break us. The spirit of our town is much deeper than that."

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