Film: How a Brutal Immigration Raid Devastated an American Small Town — and How It Bounced Back

Small-town America is immigrant America. That's the message of a documentary about Postville, Iowa, from Univision in partnership with The Intercept.

It doesn’t get more American than Postville, Iowa. The small rural community looks like countless others across the country: tidy lawns lining anonymous streets around the one big business that keeps the town employed, teenagers working shifts at the local YMCA, families sharing frosted cake in a church basement after service, dressed up kids dancing in front of their parents in a school gym.

Postville’s youth, too, is as American as it gets: Minority students, from about 14 different countries, make up well over half the local high school’s student body. When visitors come to the school and see Somali girls in their hijabs, “their heads turn so fast … I’m afraid they’re hurting their neck,” the principal said. “That doesn’t faze our kids.”

In Postville, as across America, a white girl from a conservative family can date a Guatemalan boy who was brought to the U.S. without documents, and he can hang out at her house and watch TV and laugh with her Trump-loving brother, who thinks the boyfriend’s “a great guy” but also that if “you’re here illegally…it’s still wrong.” And in Postville, as across America, mixed-status families are the norm. U.S. citizen children have undocumented parents; a young girl can go to school in Iowa by herself while the family she hasn’t seen in four years is back in Guatemala and can’t come to visit her.

These and other stories from Postville are explored in “America First: the Legacy of an Immigration Raid,” a new documentary from Univision, published in partnership with The Intercept, which tells the story of the small Iowa town a decade after a massive raid on the local meatpacking plant. The diversity and resilience of Postville’s residents are a reflection of the country’s strengths, just as the deep-seated racism, both casual and systemic, that shaped the town’s story is a ubiquitous reality of American life.

The first wave of immigrants to move to this trading-post town came from Germany. When, in 1987, Hasidic Jews from New York bought the town’s meatpacking business and turned it into the largest kosher plant in the country, “a lot of people were afraid that the Jewish people would take over the town,” Postville’s mayor told Univision. Then came Russians, Mexicans, and Eastern Europeans, followed by Central Americans, mostly from Guatemala, all to work at the plant — a tiring, thankless job few others were willing to do. “We were aware that some of them were illegal, but nobody wanted to do anything about it,” said the mayor.

On May 12, 2008, hundreds of agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement descended on Postville as part of the George W. Bush administration’s Operation Endgame.

On May 12, 2008, hundreds of agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement descended on Postville as part of the George W. Bush administration’s Operation Endgame, which aimed to remove all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country within a decade. (A decade later, the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. remains virtually unchanged.)

The raid was the largest ever at that time: Within hours, 389 people — nearly 20 percent of the town’s population — were detained. In the following days, almost half the town disappeared, as those who hadn’t been picked up by ICE fled in fear of more raids, or because they had lost their loved ones or their source of income. Overnight, the raid transformed a vibrant community into a traumatized ghost town, catapulting it out of anonymity and making its name a symbol of hardline immigration policies.

ICE came in with a full-scale paramilitary operation. Helicopters circled overhead for hours, as hundreds of armed agents swarmed the streets. Eyewitnesses said ICE agents drove after people who tried to escape, chased them into fields, and barged into their homes. Agents stormed the plant and threatened to shoot anyone who moved. Those who tried to hide were beaten, according to accounts from the day. Following the raid, workers were bused two hours to the National Cattle Congress, a facility normally used for livestock shows. There, a former dance hall was turned into a federal courthouse for expedited processing of the criminal charges brought against the workers. One lawyer represented 20 detainees at a time. They were taken to the bathroom with their hands and feet in shackles.

It was, in the words of a Jewish ex-employee of the plant, “the same as the Jewish people must have felt under Nazi Germany.”

It was, in the words of a Jewish ex-employee of the plant, “the same as the Jewish people must have felt under Nazi Germany.” A decade later, as the administration of President Donald Trump accelerates similar immigration operations at the border and around the country, objecting to that comparison is becoming harder by the day.

The Postville raid cost $5 million and tanked the town’s economy. As people vanished, so did the money they had spent on rent, groceries, and laundromats. Local stores and restaurants shut down. Immigrant and Jewish families alike who had worked at the plant now relied on the local church for help. The trauma was both immediate and lasting. Days after the raid, when a truck delivering ice drove through the town, people panicked, as they thought the word “ICE” painted on the truck meant that the immigration agents had returned. Years later, a study linked the raid to lower birth weights of babies born to Latina mothers in the months that followed.

Originally meant to be the first of many, the raid was met with such public outrage that it remained the last mass immigration enforcement operation at a workplace. Until Trump.

As The Intercept has reported, the current administration has promised more work-site immigration enforcement along the lines of what happened in Postville. In January, Thomas Homan, then ICE’s acting director, said these operations would increase by “400 percent” — and so far, that seems to be on track. Workplace raids this fiscal year doubled over the last. In April, 97 people were detained at a meatpacking plant in Morristown, Tennessee; in June, 114 at a gardening and landscaping business in Sandusky, Ohio, and nearby Castalia; days later, 146 at a meat supplier’s facilities in the cities of Canton, Massillon, and Salem in Ohio.

The administration touts these raids as successful law enforcement. Following the Tennessee raid, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was “not shedding tears” for the families torn apart by the raid. “You don’t get to get an advantage in this country by having large numbers of illegal workers working for you,” Sessions added, referring to the plant’s American owners. “You don’t get to benefit from being in this country and looking around the world for the cheapest worker you can find.”

But the truth is that these raids don’t work.

Immigrants keep coming, and Americans keep employing them to keep their businesses running. The owners of the Tennessee plant are under investigation, but have not yet been charged. The manager of the Postville plant was convicted of 86 counts of financial fraud, unrelated to immigration violations, and sentenced to 27 years in prison — but Trump commuted his sentence last December.

A decade after the raid, Postville’s economy has mostly recovered — but only thanks to the influx of new immigrants and refugees.

A decade after the raid, Postville’s economy has mostly recovered — but only thanks to the influx of new immigrants and refugees. The plant’s new owners had to recruit workers from across the country, bringing to town a new community of Somali refugees, while many Central American families came back. Postville is more diverse today than it ever has been.

“In a small town, if you’re not growing, you’re dying, and right now, there’s a massive fight in small towns and rural communities to keep the populations that they have and to recruit new ones,” Matt Hildreth, political director of the immigrant rights group America’s Voice, told The Intercept this spring.

Mark Grey, an anthropologist who has studied the raid, says in the documentary that it did not deter immigration in the long run. “You can plan and you can hope to achieve things through actions like this. But the immigration business and the presence of immigrant and refugee newcomers is so dynamic that all the long-term planning in the world can mean absolutely nothing,” he said. “Did it work? No. ‘Cause people kept coming.”

“I really don’t understand how you can live in this town and be against immigrants,” said the Guatemalan boy in the film, who has status in the U.S. now, thanks to the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. “The older generation might not hang out with each other,” said a young Somali man who recently arrived in Postville. But, he continued, “our generation will be way different than our parents’.”

Proponents of draconian immigration restrictions often claim that they want America first — but they should come to terms with the fact that Postville is America. Opposing the country’s diversity is fighting a war that’s already lost.

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