Demanding Justice in Postville

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…)

14 thoughts on “Demanding Justice in Postville

  1. I cannot be too emphatic in my pride in belonging to a synagogue whose rabbi does not sit silently by in the face of human degredation. Even more, I am proud that the Jews who are also members of my congregation, whom I know in other contexts, care enough to spend a lovely Sunday in solidarity with others, protesting our national treatment of other people. Kol HaKavod!

  2. You are a hero along with all those that have worked to help these families. Thank you for showing how great, warm and welcome this country can be.

  3. Jet lag doesn’t stop you? Social action and Tikkun Olam never ceases and you are always at it’s center. Kol -Hakavod!

  4. Pingback: 1,000 Protest in Postville!: Pro-Migrant SanctuarySphere « American Humanity

  5. As a Rabbi I am sure (maybe?) you understand the true “Manner of Law.” Although the company, Agriprocessor’s, has their own responsibility to account for and I’m sure they will have their day in court.

    Notwithstanding however is the moral and legal ineptitude of the illegal immigrants and to those who provide sanctuary for them.

    My heart grieves for those of us who have ethics, values, and God in our lives who are inconveinenced by raids, incarceration, and possible deportation.

    However, everyone is responsible for their own actions. Should we just ‘forget’ the “Manner of Law” and go around lawless? I think not. I wish there was more responsibility taken by illegal immigrants, but none more than the US government.

    omc

  6. That “What would Jesus do? Obey the law!” sign would make me angry, if I wasn’t laughing so hard at the sheer ignorance. I’m pretty sure Jesus believed in civil disobedience.

  7. “. . .the 390 immigrant Agriprocessor workers arrested. . .”

    The legal definition of immigrant is a person who has been granted permission to live in the United States and has duly registered with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Immigrants are never arrested just for being immigrants. These people were arrested because they allegedly broke the law.

    If some of the workers committed identity theft, then they should have been charged with that crime. Any citizen who was guilty of identity theft would be punished for it. Or is it your contention that citizens and legal immigrants should be held to the law but illegal aliens should not?

    “. . .to shine a bright light on our profoundly broken immigration policy. . . .”

    It is broken, mostly because it is not being enforced rigorously and consistently.

    “. . .a group of employee children (below) recited this piece. . .”

    You don’t say whether the children are citizens or not. If they are, then they are entitled to all the rights and privileges that American citizens have. If not, then they don’t even have the right to protest here. If they are citizens, then their parents should be able to get legal residency.

    “We will always fight for our people
    on our honor.”

    Fight whom? When foreign nationals talk about fighting, I worry. Does that mean war?

    “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.”

    It’s not an immigration debate; it’s a crime debate. I support allowing more immigration, but I cannot support criminal behavior. We don’t allow our own citizens to engage in it without threat of consequences.

    It’s an argument that shouldn’t even be taking place. A sovereign country does not owe the citizens of other sovereign countries anything, just as those countries don’t owe our citizens anything. I’ve been a legal resident of four other countries besides the United States. Believe me, my documents were thoroughly verified, and in one case I and my American colleagues were closely monitored. That’s just how things work.

    For the sake of the children, I am sorry for what has happened. But I blame the adults who perpetuated the crimes, not the government officials who did their jobs.

    The picture of the boy holding the American flag is touching, but the most basic thing that an American citizen should do is obey the laws. (I’m talking about the mother, not the child.)

  8. One would hope that, even if we somehow missed this major theme in our religious texts, twentieth century Jewish history all by itself would have taught us not to make an idol of imigration law.

    “My father was a liar. My grandfather was a liar. How else did we cross lines to get to this country? We stayed alive by lying. We lied to the Russians, we lied to the Germans, we lied to the British! We lie for survival! Jacob the Liar was my father!” -Uriel Simon, professor emeritus of biblical studies at Bar-Ilan University.

    For the full context of Prof. Simon’s statement see:

  9. Pingback: America! America! « The Mex Files

  10. quick question-where would i find in your archives your previous posts dealing with agriprocessors????

  11. The New York Times has a great editorial today from an Orthodox rabbi, suggesting that the rabbinical boards should set up an independent commission to investigate Postville. He notes that there is precedent for declaring food to be unkosher if the workers who produced it were treated badly.

    Lesley

  12. More updates: New York Times recently covered the clash between Rabbi Allen of Heshker Tzedek, who wants to establish an ethical seal of approval for kosher-certified products, and the Orthodox leadership.

  13. It’s an argument that shouldn’t even be taking place. A sovereign country does not owe the citizens of other sovereign countries anything, just as those countries don’t owe our citizens anything. I’ve been a legal resident of four other countries besides the United States. Believe me, my documents were thoroughly verified, and in one case I and my American colleagues were closely monitored. That’s just how things work.

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