Immigration Raid Leaves Mark on Iowa Town Postville, Iowa, is home to the kosher meat packer Agriprocessors, which was the target of a huge raid by federal immigration agents last month. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid may have a lasting effect on city finances and the plant itself.
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Immigration Raid Leaves Mark on Iowa Town

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Immigration Raid Leaves Mark on Iowa Town

Immigration Raid Leaves Mark on Iowa Town

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Over to Iowa now, and the tiny town of Postville. It's in the northeast corner of the state and it's home to the nation's largest kosher meat packer. The company recently lost nearly half its workforce after a huge raid by immigration officials. The raid sent shockwaves through Postville, a town that's long been a model of cultural diversity.

Tim Belay reports.

TIM BELAY: Aaron Rubashkin, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, founded Agriprocessors here 20 years ago, and the plant was turning out about half of the nation's kosher beef and chicken. Slaughter operations are now down to one shift instead of three as the company scrambles for replacement workers. It's expected that many of them will be Mexican-Americans from Texas.

This plant brought diversity and prosperity to a town with three central streets and no stoplights. But after the raid, many here are wondering if the future of the town is in jeopardy. Twenty-three hundred people lived in Postville before the raid, and about half of them were Hispanic.

Father PAUL OUDERKIRK (St. Bridget Catholic Church): (Speaking Spanish)

BELAY: Father Paul Ouderkirk leads the Spanish mass on Saturday nights at St. Bridget Catholic Church. He says the immigration raid wounded the town.

Father OUDERKIRK: First it's in the hearts of the people. They're frightened. They're not sure. They had roots here. They liked it here because Postville is about the same size of areas that they came from. It's unsettled. The wound also has hurt this parish because it's so deep, we don't know what the long-term effects are going to be.

(Soundbite of choir)

BELAY: The St. Bridget Choir rehearses on Saturday afternoons, but after the raid the scene at this church was much different. Hundreds of frightened people ate and slept here, figuring it was the safest place to avoid authorities. Three hundred of the workers who were arrested pleaded guilty, and most of them will be deported. Choir leader Blanka Schrader(ph) says this has been extremely hard on families.

Ms. BLANKA SCHRADER (Choir Leader): It's very sad when you hear the children asking, Mom, is my dad coming? One day do we - is possible, do you think, we will see my father again? So this thing really breaks your heart.

BELAY: About half of the elementary school students in the Postville District are from immigrant families. Most of them had one or both parents working at the plant. School librarian Julie Heitland expects financial trouble down the road since school funding is based on enrolment numbers.

Ms. JULIE HEITLAND (Librarian): Money-wise we're sitting okay for the fall, because that money's already been committed. It's the following year, because if we don't have the numbers this fall, we aren't going to have any money.

BELAY: Aaron Goldsmith is a leader in the Orthodox Jewish community here, and he's worked hard to bring these very different cultures together. He says Postville's uncertain future depends on the makeup of the new workforce.

Mr. AARON GOLDSMITH: Who's running to get packing jobs? I don't know. I don't know if there's going to be people that are good community members. Are they going to be people that have jumped from job to job? What kind of people are they going to be?

(Soundbite of music)

BELAY: This is Sabor Latino, a highly successful local Mexican restaurant and grocery store. Owner Juan Figueroa says business is down a whopping 90 percent, and he'll have to take out a loan to try to stay open until a new workforce arrives, although there's no guarantee that will happen.

Mr. JUAN FIGUEROA (Store Owner): Can't do very much. Can't do very much. Just wait till the people - people are coming from the South back. So just wait a couple of months and see what if it gets better or close it down, one or the other.

BELAY: People from surrounding towns pack this place for dinner on weekends, but Figueroa says nearly all of the regular daily customers are Hispanic.

(Soundbite of music)

BELAY: KPVL Radio, a local non-profit station, was created six years ago to broadcast in English, Spanish and Hebrew. In today's Postville, station manager Jeff Abbas oversees a kind of bilingual sounding board.

Mr. JEFF ABBAS (KPVL Station Manager): Ricardo, tell us if you would a little bit of what...

BELAY: Abbas says most people do expect Postville to recover. The slaughterhouse says it'll hire a new CEO soon, and people here are eagerly waiting to see if life returns to how it was before immigration agents decided to send hundreds of their neighbors back to their original home countries.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Belay.

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