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Remembering the Postville Raid 10 Years Later

Pat Blank/IPR

In the early morning hours of May 12, 2008, large numbers of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents moved in on a kosher meat processing plant in the small northeast Iowa community of Postville. They carried military-style weapons and some wore riot gear, carrying out what remains the nation's largest immigration raid. Postville businessman Aaron Goldsmith says he was awakened by the sound of helicopters.

“All these different buses and people moving into town, we started to find out there was a raid going on, it was totally mind-blowing," he said.  "It was like going to bed in Postville and waking up in Disneyland, it was a totally shocking experience all together, ya know.”

Nearly 400 people at the Agri-Processors plant were arrested, loaded onto buses and transported to makeshift courtrooms an hour and a half away in Waterloo. Family members who were left behind sought refuge at St. Bridget Catholic Church. Sister Mary McCauley says the small parish quickly became overwhelmed with need.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials bussed people arrested at the Agri-Processors plant to the National Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo on May 12, 2008. (Photo courtesy of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)

“I say the town was shattered, but it was also strengthened because we received a lot of support from townspeople bringing in food so we could offer this presence and support. Our own people stayed in the kitchen and cooked breakfast and lunch, and they cooked supper. We received help not just from the town of Postville, but from all the surrounding area giving us support,” she said.

In the midst of this upheaval, the chief executive of Agri-Processors, Sholom Rubashkin, was charged with providing fake identification for the workers. He was later convicted of defrauding banks of millions of dollars. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison.  Late last year, President Trump, at the urging congressional representatives from both parties, commuted Rubashkin’s sentence and he was released. Aaron Goldsmith says it was the right thing to do.

“When a first-time offender got released after eight years, for us it was a major joy, but psychologically speaking for many other people, they thought 'well geez he got off easy', he went from 27 years to eight years, they were looking at the 27, and they weren’t really looking at the crimes,” Goldsmith said.

Prior to the raid, Postville had been known for decades for its ethnic diversity due in part to the many backgrounds represented by the meat packing plant employees.

Anthropology professor Mark Grey heads the New Iowan Center at the University of Northern Iowa. He says he and his colleagues were fascinated by this cultural melting pot.

Was it a house of cards? Maybe in some respects, some days I’m sad about it, some days I’m angry about it, some days I’m like, 'well we learned a hell of a lot', before during and after the raid," he said.  "I still have friends there and colleagues there and when I have a chance I still visit because I find it to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been.”

Both Professor Grey and Sister McCauley believe the Postville raid had a huge impact on the hiring practices of companies across the country. Sister Mary says it started a conversation that needs to be continued.

“In 2008, the hardest question asked of me was do I believe in breaking the law and that’s when I had to say, no I don’t believe in breaking the law but I do believe in reviewing the law," she said.  "So the summons of the 10th anniversary is both a remembrance and honoring the respect of the people who were affected by the raid.”

Businessman Aaron Goldsmith says although the raid will always be part of Postville’s history, it’s only one chapter.

“If you compare our town with all the surrounding towns, we have one of the lowest crime rates and we’re actually turning the tide of the brain drain," he said. "We’re starting to see young people move back into town. I think that’s a tremendously promising statement about the future of our town.” 

On Friday, an interfaith prayer service and a noon rally in a park near the site of the raid will mark the 10th anniversary.