Update: Two Years After Raid, Postville Hopes for a New Beginning

A complete update of where things stand in the small Iowa town where a large kosher meat packing facility is located

By Tom Walsh, Director of Advocacy, JCUA
And Jonathan Lehrer, Director of Communications, JCUA

Welcome to Postville

Welcome to Postville: Hometown to the World

May 12, 2010–On the second anniversary of the immigration raid that forever changed their town, leaders of a small Northeastern Iowa community are hoping the worst is behind them and that a new beginning is on the horizon.

With the help of allies from numerous faith and community backgrounds – from within Iowa and across the country – the town of Postville continues to recover from an unjust and unthinkable raid on their community by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the ensuing bankruptcy of the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant that brought ICE to town.

The past two years caused great hardship for workers and their families. The hardship extended to the local and regional economy, including cattle and feed producers, their suppliers and employees, truckers, landlords and the many businesses that served every aspect of a community so dependent on a single employer.

Such hardship – a direct result of the nation’s broken immigration system — should never be allowed to happen again to any community in any part of our great nation.

May 12, 2008 began pretty much like any other Monday in this small town of modest frame houses and quiet streets. By the time the day was over, helicopters carrying ICE agents had swooped down, arresting nearly 400 undocumented workers in what was then the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. The action traumatized families, brought dishonor to the word “kosher” and turned Postville into a national symbol in the fight for immigration reform.

Community march on anniversary of raids

Marching in Postville a year after the raid: Rabbi Morris Allen (left); Jane Ramsey (center); Rabbi Darryl Crystal (right)

A year later, on the raid’s first anniversary, hoards of media crews descended on the community to cover a prayer vigil at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church and a march to the parking lot of Agriprocessors where a rally was held. In a startling irony, one of the news crews arrived on the scene in a helicopter, evoking thoughts of the ICE helicopters whose bad memories were only a year old.

Today, the second anniversary of the raid shaped up to be a much quieter day, with production increasing at the kosher meat plant, with local faith leaders hoping for a productive dialog with the plant’s new owners and with the entire community beginning to feel that normalcy might return to Postville.

Along with our partners Jewish Community Action in St. Paul, Minn., JCUA has been “on the ground” in Postville for two years, making monthly visits and representing the Jewish community’s effort to help reverse the negative effect of a facility whose purpose has been to help observant Jews across the country observe the ancient dietary laws of kashruth (kosher).

Here’s a summary of the current state of affairs in Postville as viewed through the our eyes.

The Town

  • The economic and emotional devastation that followed the raid was substantial.
  • Community and faith leaders relied on such existing organizations as the Postville Food Pantry, Postville Community Support, and St. Bridget’s Hispanic Ministry. They developed a new support organization, the Postville Response Coalition, over the past two years to respond to the huge financial and emotional needs of everyone affected by the raid
  • Postville now has a new mayor, Leigh Rekow.
  • There are a few more vacancies on Main St.
  • Rental properties in Postville have a large number of vacancies.
  • As production ramps up at Agri Star (the new name of the plant) more temporary visitors and workers have been coming in and out of town.

The Plant

  • After being in the hands of a court-appointed trustee beginning in November 2008 a new owner, Hershey Friedman, took over the plant in August 2009 and renamed it Agri Star Meat and Poultry.
  • Agri Star is currently operating with about 550 employees, down from the 900 workers who were employed by Agriprocessors prior to the raid.
  • The plant has received approval for tax credits and grants from the state economic commission.
  • Producing only poultry since their acquisition of the plant, Agri Star’s beef line recently began to operate, slaughtering 80-90 head per day with a goal of 500 per day within 12 months.
  • Under its new owners, the plant will produce both kosher and non-kosher beef, turkey and chicken meat products, as the previous owners had done.

The Workers and Families Affected by the May 12, 2008 Raid

  • Just about all of the workers originally detained in the raid have been deported out of the U.S.
  • Most of their family members who were left behind in Postville have joined them either in Mexico or Central America (primarily Guatemala). Some are trying to survive here in America without fathers or mothers or both.
  • A handful of workers were granted U visas allowing them to remain in the U.S., work and eventually apply for full citizenship. U visas are granted to non-citizens who have been the victims of felony level crimes while visiting or living in the U.S.
  • Six young men, minors who worked at the plant, have been flown back to Iowa from Guatemala just a week ago to testify at the current trial against the former owner and a few managers of Agriprocessors for child labor violations.

The Postville Jewish Community

  • Many of the Orthodox Jews in Postville continue to work at the plant.
  • The kosher grocery store in town has closed as the total number of Jews in Postville is lower than when Agriprocessors was at the height of their production.

Community Benefits

Members of the Postville community at a brainstorming session where the concept of a Community Benefits Alliance was discussed.

The Northeast Iowa Community Benefits Alliance (NICBA)

  • While the Agriprocessors plant was under the operation of the bankruptcy court, area faith and community leaders in collaboration with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (Chicago) and Jewish Community Action of St. Paul, Minn., established a Community Benefits Alliance with the goal of creating communication and accountability structures when and if the plant secured a new owner.
  • The NICBA has grown to include cattle and feed farmers throughout the county. It also includes as trusted advisers and partners the Iowa state representative and other elected officials who serve the Postville region.
  • The NICBA has been in consultation with the Orthodox Union (the nation’s largest kosher certification agency) and has been endorsed by the Archdiocese of Dubuque, the Northeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the parish councils of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church and St. Paul Lutheran Church (both of Postville).
  • At one time NICBA had the endorsement of the Postville City Council but due to reasons still not fully understood they have relinquished that endorsement.
  • After a long eight months of waiting, an initial meeting with Agri Star Owner Hershey Friedman and a representative of the NICBA took place in late April 2010. The Alliance is hopeful that a schedule of quarterly meetings with the owners of the plant and local and state elected officials will begin in the next month or so.

The Criminal Charges

  • Sholom Rubashkin, Agriprocessors vice president, was convicted of 86 federal fraud charges. As of this writing, he is awaiting sentencing on the fraud charges, and is in the middle of a state trial on charges of violating child labor laws.

The Meat and Poultry

  • Agri Star’s kosher poultry, beef and deli items are produced under the Aaron’s Best, Shor Habor and Supreme Glatt labels. Aaron’s Best is the same label used by the former Agriprocessors operation. (The word glatt means smooth in Yiddish. It is often used by kosher product marketers to indicate a more strict standard of kashruth.)
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