I spent an incredible day yesterday in Postville, Iowa, where an interfaith mobilization of nearly 1,500 people prayed, marched, sang and testified in solidarity with the 390 immigrant Agriprocessor workers arrested in the May 12 raid. I’m still processing the experience the morning after – suffice to say this action provided a powerful ray of light in the midst of the ongoing tragedy that is Postville.
Some brief background for those who still need it: on May 12, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the Agriprocessors kosher meat packing plant. It was the largest single-site workplace raid in US history, resulting in the detainment of 390 employees (out of a total of 968). Ninety were subsequently released (many with GPS ankle bracelets) – the remaining 300 have convicted as criminals on felony charges.
This is the first time that criminal charges were used as a deportation tactic in an immigrant raid. Most of the detained workers were sentenced to five months in prison for engaging in identity theft, in addition to being charged with committing a civil offense for living in the US illegally. According to the terms of their sentence, they are to be deported after serving their time. (Agriprocessors has not been charged, although there have been widespread and growing charges of worker abuse at the plant).
Yesterday’s demonstration was organized to show solidarity with the Agriprocessor workers and their families and to shine a bright light on our profoundly broken immigration policy. This action brought together an unprecedented coalition of activists and was organized by Postville’s St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, Jewish Community Action (St. Paul, MN), the Jewish Coucil on Urban Affairs (Chicago), and the Office for College Ministries at Luther College (Decorah, IA).
Marchers came from throughout the Midwest – largely from Iowa, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago. I joined two full tour buses organized by JCUA for the five hour ride. As we arrived, the scale of the action quickly became evident – throngs were simply pouring into Postville from every direction. I was honored to participate in an interfaith service at St. Bridget’s (below) – the Catholic church that initially provided refuge for families of the detained and has been the base of operations for the crisis response team.
After the service, we began our march. (That’s me with JRC members Leon and Sue Fink and Gonzalo and Tina Escobar below). Our first stop was the Agriprocessor’s plant which was adorned, horrifyingly enough, with a menorah, a Jewish star, and a banner that read “Agriprocessors: A Great Place to Work!” Needless to say, I was heartened by the strong Jewish presence at the demonstration, which provided Postville with a very different face of the Jewish community.
Our march also stopped at large playground that has remained largely empty since the raid. (The Postville school system has been decimated since employee children have either moved away with their families or are living in fear in their homes). In one of the many emotional high points of the day, a group of employee children (below) recited this piece, which was inspired by the poem “I Am A Jew” (from the classic collection “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”):
We are Latinos and will be Latinos forever.
Even if they should try to separate our families
never will we submit.
We will always fight for our people
on our honor.
We will never be ashamed of them
we give our word.
We are proud of our people,
how dignified they are.
Even though we are supressed,
we will always come back to life.
Our march then took us into downtown Postville, where we encountered the inevitable counter demonstrators. As you can see from the pix below, their signs ranged from the more than mildly offensive to the outright repulsive. (We quickly learned, however, that these fine citizens were not locals. I want to take pains to note that we were largely received with respect and appreciation by the citizens of Postville).
During the final rally, the skies opened up with a thunderstorm, so we moved back into St. Bridget’s. By far, the most moving part of this gathering were the personal testimonies of Agriprocessor workers and their families. One young boy, whose mother is currently imprisoned in Leavenworth, KS, spoke eloquently about his family and their plight, while choking back tears.
As painful as it is, I believe it is so essential for us to bear witness to stories such as these. They are critical reminders that the immigration debate in our country is not about abstract policy, but real people whose lives are literally being torn apart by structural violence. At the end of the day, this really is the crux of the issue. All the rest, as the ubiquitous Rabbi Hillel once said, is mere commentary.
Still, yesterday was a proud day for us all. And I can’t help but hope that this newly emboldened coalition will now take the struggle to the next level.
I’ll close with the picture below. Take a close look – I think it says it all. (The mother with the ankle bracelet is Maria Garcia, an ex-Agriprocessor employee originally from San Luis Potasi, Mexico. That’s her son Anthony holding the American flag…)