In this small northeastern Iowan town surrounded by newly planted cornfields, a middle-aged white woman walks into the local Guatemalan restaurant with her arm around a Hispanic child who is sobbing because she can't find her mother. After conferring with a restaurant worker, the woman takes the child nearby to St. Bridget's, a small 1970s-era brick Catholic church on a quiet tree-lined street that has become command central for what people in this community of 2,273 describe as a "disaster relief response."
In the aftermath of the nation's largest single-site immigration raid a May 12 raid of a Postville-based meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors Inc. that took 389 workers into custody Hispanic children and adults here remain fearful. And many white residents remain hard at work helping the people left behind mostly women from Guatemala and Mexico and their children.
To date, 270 illegal immigrant workers have pleaded guilty to unusually tough federal criminal charges of working with false documents and have received five-month prison sentences followed by deportation. About 40 female workers have been released temporarily to care for children. Suddenly without income, job prospects or spouses, they await court dates.
Many Hispanics, legal or not, fear that the immigration agents will return. (The original goal had been to arrest 697 of the plant's 968 workers.) On the first chaotic day of the raid, about 400 people fled to the church seeking safety, food, shelter, medical care and the whereabouts of family members. Now, Postville residents led by religious leaders have spontaneously stitched together a safety net. Their argument: if this were a natural disaster, FEMA would be here but instead it's a man-made tragedy and the government is providing little help. "It is my privilege to serve the needs of these people," says Sister Mary McCauley, a petite, white-haired woman with a kind smile who is St. Bridget's pastoral administrator. "[but] I don't know why they have left it to the faith community alone."
Responding with an outpouring of donated goods, money, time and caring, the volunteers are fueled by compassion, duty, and, increasingly, frustration and fury. They know too that immigrants have helped make Agriprocessors the nation's largest kosher meat processor and, in turn, helped Postville prosper while many small Iowa towns struggle. "They're being preyed upon," says John Schlee, 71, a volunteer wearing overalls and a farm implement company cap. "They're doing work that the American workers don't want to do. They're searching for a better life and now their families are being torn apart."
Anti-immigrant sentiment and ethnic tensions are not unknown in this unusually diverse Iowa small town, whose residents include descendants of German and Norwegian Lutherans and Irish Catholics as well as more recent arrivals Latin Americans, Ukrainians and Hasidic Jews drawn here by the plant. A few angry people have called the church, complaining about its care of "criminals." But volunteers like Ardie Kuhse, 60, shrug this off. "Yes, they were illegal. But they were working. Is that a crime? They're a part of our community," says Kuhse, near tears as she recalls trying to calm children after the raid.
On the weekend before Memorial Day, St. Bridget's social hall bustled with Hispanic families seeking financial and legal advice, including Sylvia Ruiz, 40, and Marta Veronica, 32, Guatemalans who wore electronic ankle bracelets. "We can't work. We can't provide for our kids. God bless the church," says Veronica, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. She is looking after a daughter and two teen-age nephews, who were among several minors detained and later released. Cooking meals, making beds, unloading trucks and running errands, the volunteers include people from Postville, other Iowa communities and beyond lawyers, religious leaders, staff from a nonprofit Latino aid center in Waterloo and students and faculty from Iowa colleges.
At one card table, a Cornell College student helped people locate family and friends. Above them hung an Iowa map pocked with post-it notes showing the locations of detention centers. Nearby, a Lutheran minister conferred with a Hasidic man who runs the local kosher grocery store. At another card table, two nuns filled out a raid "registration and care" form for two Hispanic men, assisted by two Luther College students acting as interpreters.
Donations are being used to help pay for necessities like rent and utilities. In the church rectory, lawyers met individually with immigrants struggling to understand criminal and immigration law. The unusually rapid court proceedings have raised concerns about violations of due process. There have been allegations that workers have been exploited. Some immigrants fear eviction as replacement workers arrive and need lodging. They have other questions: Where are the men and women serving their sentences? When will the temporarily released mothers face charges? How do they get and pay for passports for children who are U.S. citizens?
Sylvia Ruiz, who is preparing for a likely return to Guatemala, has four children ages 18, 16, 7 and 2. "The little ones don't understand what's happening," she says. "The older ones do." At Postville's K-8 school, where about half of the 387 students are Hispanic and some have been at the school for years, Principal Chad Wahls predicts 70 to 120 children won't return next fall, possibly including the best friends of his third-grade daughter, who "cried and cried for days" after the raid. When school breaks for summer this week, he predicts more tears from teachers.
Braced for months of waiting and uncertainty, many Postville residents are certain about one thing: "We have to have comprehensive immigration reform so these people who desire to work can. We have to have a way to welcome them," says Sister McCauley. "When people are so hurt, we have to take a look at the law."