On the surface, Postville looks like many other towns we’ve seen in the Heartland. It’s in a pretty setting of farms and fields that separate it by miles from the next town. There’s a mix of houses, ancient and modern, well-kept and ramshackle. There are lots of farm-related businesses. It’s in the only county in Iowa without a traffic light.
What’s different about Postville is the population. Iowa’s population is overwhelmingly “white,” Christian, and only 4% foreign born. Postville has a large Hasidic community, complete with yeshiva:
a big Somali presence, many Latin Americans from different countries, a Russian speaking community, and others, set among old-line families largely of German descent.
The world has come to Postville because of its kosher meat processing plant.
The plant shut after a May 2008 raid by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in which about 900 agents rounded up almost 400 workers — this, in a town of little more than 2000 people — dealing a heavy blow to the community. For more on this, see the link on the first post on this blog, “Ride for Human Rights: Joey Goes to Postville” (at the right on your screen).
Pastor Shad Sluiter
spent a lot of his Sunday afternoon talking to Jeffrey about Postville’s people. He said the residents with German roots didn’t think much about immigration until the 1990s, when the town’s population began to change. Initial discomfort gave way to acceptance, even support, as the old families recognized that the overwhelming majority of the newcomers are good hard-working people with honest family values.
Shad, who had a varied and successful corporate career before he found his calling in the clergy, said that many of the unauthorized workers in Postville came here reluctantly. For example, some men left Guatemala when the rich owner of the land surrounding their village decided to cut down his fruit orchards for lumber. The villagers’ livelihood was entirely dependent on working those orchards. The men would have no source of income for years while new trees took root. They couldn’t find work elsewhere in Guatemala; they would have had to displace other peons to do that. So it was move or starve. This is entirely consistent with stories Jeffrey’s refugee clients have told him about missing their home countries notwithstanding poverty and danger — they want to live in their countries, and left only because they were unwilling to die there prematurely. And as we earlier quoted The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley, most people would rather stay home if they can get by; they aren’t looking to live at a U.S. level.
Shad says if you want to reduce immigration to the U.S. from Latin America — which he is not suggesting would be a good thing — get those governments to reform their own systems so that ordinary people can earn adequate food, clothing and shelter. That’s all it would take to keep most migrants at home. Meanwhile, people have to live, no matter what the law says.
Shad introduced Jeffrey to a typical local “mixed” family from Cental America. Dad has been here 14 years, working hard all that time. He had worked at the local kosher meat plant until the May 2008 raid. Now he does farm work. Mom followed him here, and after that, they arranged for the children to come, one while still an infant. One child is an American citizen. The younger kids, including two born abroad, excel in school — straight A’s! And except for the youngest (U.S. citizen) kid, none has a future under current law. They’ll be educated K-12 as is their constitutional right, then left without realistic options for college or work. What a lovely family. What a waste.
Jeffrey also met Pedro, who was on TV in Chicago and doesn’t mind having his photo published.
After the 2008 raid, Pedro — who came to the U.S. at age 2 — was a voice for the voiceless, a face for the children who suffered under government immigration policy. His mother was working during the raid, and was arrested. His father was off that shift, and made Pedro and his younger sister stay in the basement of their house for two weeks after the raid. Mom was deported, but was allowed to return to help care for the children.
Pedro is cracklingly smart and intellectually aggressive. He takes the hardest classes in high school. When teachers have discouraged him from taking some courses, he insists on trying anyway, and every time he gets A’s as an underclassman when seniors are struggling. The kid will go far … unless he hits a legal brick wall when he graduates high school (probably at the very top of his class).
Jeffrey also met a Somali gentleman who said he was about to start work at the meat plant. He moved here from the Twin Cities, where he said high living costs prevented him from saving money. He wants to start his own business, and although AgriStar wages are low, he hopes living costs in Postville will prove even lower. He’s willing to work hard and is an entrepreneur — a typical immigrant.
After attending a friendly church service where one group speaks English and another speaks Spanish, Jeffrey was treated to a pizza dinner by Ron and Karen Wahls. Karen is an RN who provides critical cardiac care, anticoagulent management and other services at a local hospital. Ron is a former farmer who became a school guidance counselor, school bus driver, tutor, construction worker, real estate developer, and more — a true jack of all trades.
Ron explained that while many small Iowa towns are shrinking and dying, Postville has held its own because it attracts immigrants to the meat plant. The newcomers do more than keep Postville interesting, although that they do. They keep it alive.
Today, Monday, Jeffrey spoke for an hour about the Ride and about human rights, immigration, and asylum law, to Postville’s public school’s 75 fourth & fifth graders.
The kids received souvenir picture postcards of the Statue of Liberty, signed by me and by Jeffrey, thanking them for their support of human rights.
Jeffrey also spoke to two classes of juniors taking American history.
We noticed something pastor Shad had mentioned: the elementary classes are much more ethnically diverse than the upper classes. Shad believes that many kids from the Latino community fail to complete high school because they know they’ll hit that legal dead end, so they don’t see the use. Shad is probably correct.
Here I am with a souvenir shirt from Postville High, announcing that “Character Counts”. We agree, and think that the kids of Postville prove it with their close-knit, accepting community.
The rest of our country can learn a lot from Postville.
Come back tomorrow for some more thoughts on Postville, the Ride, and what we found along the way.