Sally Kohn: Dear Mr. President, From Postville
From the Huffington Post - To: Our Next President From: Postville, Iowa Date: June 12, 2008 Re: Do Something!
Postville, Iowa, is as American as it gets. Originally inhabited by American Indians, like most of the nation, Postville became a town in the mid-1800s when a half-way house was established for soldiers traveling between army forts in northeastern Iowa. The small town has been a home for travelers ever sense -- including the more than 300 immigrant workers at the Agriprocessor meatpacking plant who were detained by federal agents one month ago today. In a sense, Postville is still a half-way house for the American dream, a dream deferred for many. And it's a microcosm of the issues facing our next President.
Postville is emblematic of America's pluralistic melting pot. German and Norwegian immigrants moved in toward the late 1800s. A century later, in 1987s, Hassidic Jews from New York moved to Postville to establish Agriprocessor, a kosher meatpacking plant. Soon after, immigrants from Guatemala, Russia, Bosnia, Nigeria and elsewhere arrived, seeking jobs the new factory had created for them. Today, Postville's residents can trace their lineage to some 27 countries.
Without question, there was friction. Postville is a small town, about 2,300 hundred residents according to the 2000 Census -- and "that's counting everyone and their dog", locals quip. So any changes in town were certain to be noticed. "You'd see them, and you wouldn't really know how to talk to them, how to act around them," Wade Schutte, a high school student, said of the new immigrants in 1999 Los Angeles Times article. "It took a while to adjust."
And certainly, like elsewhere, not every long-time resident of Postville was able to adjust and friction often teetered on resentment or even backlash. But most of Postville adapted with and even came to appreciate change. At a gift shop in Postville that now sells Mexican-style painted crosses along side Jewish-inspired glass figurines, owner Nina Taylor told National Geographic in 2005 that there are some who want to "go back to the 50s. But if we go back there, we'd be a dead town." Thanks to all of the changes, Postville's once-stagnant economy has been steadily growing for the last 15 years.
At the same time, if Postville represents America's potential -- as an historically welcoming promise land for newcomers that builds on the strength of diversity to achieve our shared dreams -- Postville also represents a warning. The Agriprocessor meatpacking plant was issued 39 citations in March 2008 for violating workplace safety and health violations. The workers at the plant, most of whom were undocumented immigrants, slaved away doing dangerous jobs in unsafe conditions for pittance wages with little or no recourse. Postville's economic gains came at the expense of these immigrants, driven by a lack of opportunity in their home countries to seek out marginal opportunities here, quickly learning that the American dream was an exploitative trap. While slowly but surely integrating into the larger community, Postville's immigrants were clearly still an underclass.
Rather than raise the minimum wage for all workers in Postville, guarantee quality public schools and affordable healthcare for all, establish a new unionized job training program bringing fresh opportunity to the town, and guaranteeing a path to citizenship and integration programs for all the town's immigrants -- the sort of help Postville really needs -- on May 12, 2008, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency raided the meatpacking plant. Federal agents arrested more than 300 immigrants, ripping apart their lives, ripping apart their families and ripping apart Postville.
Even today, many of the workers are still being held in converted animal pens at a nearby fairground without access to their families or to lawyers. And the town of Postville is no longer a postcard for the land of community and opportunity America has always strived to be but a reminder of the ugly scapegoating and oppression from which we too often suffer. Rather than improving conditions at Agriprocessor and fixing Postville's problems, the raid made matters worse.
The culture and values of small town America demand that inclusion and community triumph over a go-it-alone individualism that fears anyone or anything different. Since the raid, white residents of Postville have joined demonstration rallies against the raids and served food to immigrants seeking refuge in local churches. "This is a little town that's some 20-miles from even a McDonald's," Postville resident Doug All told the Los Angeles Times reporter. "So we have to get along." The challenge facing our nation is how to do just that, working together toward the American dream we share.
A good start would be our current president making good on his message that "we've got to be humane about the nearly 11 or 12 million people who are already here." Raids like the one in Postville are anything but, and President Bush could finally show the moral leadership he once claimed as the mantle of his presidency and declare and end to all ICE raids. Meanwhile, Senator McCain and Senator Obama should both condemn these raids and declare that, their first day in office, they will put an end to them. Because Postville, like America, has bigger problems to deal with that require all of us working together -- not immigration raids tearing us apart.
Sally Kohn is a Senior Campaign Strategist with the Center for Community Change. You can sign a pledge to support immigrant rights and a better America for all of us at www.BuildingAmericaTogether.org