Immigrant Rights and American Values: Postville, Iowa Revisited

Immigrant Rights and American Values: Postville, Iowa Revisited

by Tracy Kurowski

week of discussion on the Postville raids begins tonight.  See schedule

Are we as a Nation willing to accept mass raids, arrests and
the detainment of human beings in a cattle warehouse, as an American

It’s been almost two years since Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) committed what was then the largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history at the Agriprocessors Plant in Postville, Iowa. Nine hundred officers from ICE swept into the Jewish kosher slaughterhouse arresting 390 men, women and children who worked at the plant, 306 of whom were ultimately held for prosecution.

The raid was so large that by the next day, one third of the town had disappeared, and in the days that followed, general panic ensued. American born children of the immigrants, as well as the undocumented, failed to show up to school for fear of arrest. Hundreds of men, women and children sought sanctuary in St. Bridget’s Catholic Church. Still others simply fled town.

Mothers who were released by ICE so they could care for their unattended children, were forced to wear ankle bracelets and remain under house arrest. Those women were prevented from working and could no longer provide for their families. They depended on the mercy of St. Bridget’s and others who provided charity so they and their children could eat. Stores were closed down across the small town, and school administrators and city officials began to wonder how they were going to pay their bills, now that the number of students and residents had declined overnight.

After the raid, ICE bused the arrested en masse to be detained and to appear before a federal magistrate at an ad hoc facility set up at the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo. County officials later claimed they were misled about the nature of the use of their fairgrounds, where later that year cattle would be brought for the perennial rural American county fair tradition. County officials were led to believe that Homeland Security was going to use the fairgrounds for training exercises.

What instead happened was as shocking then as it remains today.  Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas, who was one of the federal interpreters hired to work at the subsequent arraignments held at the Waterloo National Cattle Congress, will return to Eastern Iowa this week to discuss his experiences.  Before his very eyes, Dr. Camayd-Freixas saw mostly indigenous Guatemalans brought in groups of ten to be tried for not only the civil offense of illegal immigration, but for the much more serious criminal charge of identity theft:

“Driven single-file in groups of ten, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before being marched out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of ten.”  Link

Thanks to the organizing efforts of the six congregations of Catholic Sisters and colleges and universities in our region, Dr. Camayd-Freixas will lead a discussion titled, Immigrant Rights and American Values.

The presentations are all free, open to the public and pre-registration is not required:

Monday, March 8th: The Canticle, 841 13th Ave. North, Clinton,  7 p.m.

Tuesday, March 9: University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls: 2:00 p.m. in the UNI Center for Multicultural Education (109 Maucker Union)  and 7:00 p.m. at St. Stephen the Witness Catholic Student Center (1019 W. 23rd St.).   

Wednesday, March 10: Noon at Iowa City Foreign Affairs Council and at 7:00 pm. at Mount Mercy College at Basile Hall, Flaherty Community Room, 1330 Elmhurst Drive, Cedar Rapids.

Thursday, March 11:  Clarke College, Jansen Music Hall in the Atrium, 1550 Clarke Drive, Dubuque, 7 p.m.

When he spoke out about the miscarriage of justice, Dr. Camayd-Freixas did something rare among professional interpreters. But what he witnessed so moved him that within months he had written a profound essay. He also wrote an OPED for the New York Times, directing national attention to the events in Eastern Iowa that the press had already since forgotten. He has since written more essays and appeared before Congress to answer questions raised about the raid.

Regardless of how one feels about immigration, what occurred in the days after the ICE raid in Postville and the damage done to the entire community since – to both the American born and the immigrants – is a shameful episode in how not to deal with American immigration.

It’s hard to imagine with the degraded nature of civic discourse today, that our country is in any mood to deal with immigration. Health care hangs in the balance, job losses continue to drive more and more families to the brink of poverty, and the two wars we fight on the other side of the planet continue to drain resources, cause untold deaths and return soldiers home with physical and emotional scars.

Yet this is a discussion that as a country of immigrants, in a world where gym shoes and television sets have more rights to cross borders than human beings, we have no choice but to bring into the light of day.  Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away, but it may encourage other heartless bureaucrats to repeat the horrors of May 12, 2008. 

Are we as a nation willing to accept mass raids and arrests, and detainment of human beings in a cattle warehouse, as an American value?

Kurowski has been active in the labor movement
for ten years, first as a member of AFSCME 3506, when she taught adult
education classes at the City Colleges of Chicago. She moved to the
Quad Cities in 2007 where she worked as political coordinator with the
Quad City Federation of Labor, and as a caseworker for Congressman
Bruce Braley from 2007 – 2009.

Tracy Kurowski writes a labor update every
Monday on Blog for Iowa

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