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After Iowa Raid, Families in Limbo

New America Media, News Feature//Video, Words: Marcelo Ballv//Video: Cliff Parker Posted: Jun 20, 2008

Editors Note: One month after the largest, single-site workplace immigration raid in U.S. history, hundreds of residents of Postville, Iowa are unable to work or feed their families as they await deportation orders that could take months. NAM contributing editor Marcelo Ballv reports from Iowa on the fallout for those targeted at a huge raid on a meatpacking plant. Cliff Parker is the director of video production at New America Media. Traduccin al espaol

POSTVILLE, Iowa -- They while away the long hours behind drawn shutters, in front of televisions tuned to Spanish-language soap operas. Though they realize it's irrational, many of them still live in fear that immigration agents will return, crash into their homes with drawn guns, yell obscenities at them, call them dogs, and drag them away amidst screams and tears.

That's what happened May 12, when the largest, single-site workplace immigration raid in U.S. history engulfed this small Iowa town. The raid targeted hundreds of undocumented workers at the Agriprocessors, Inc. kosher meatpacking plant, which dominates the local economy. Over a third of the plant's workforce was detained that day -- 389 immigrants, nearly all Mexican and Guatemalan men and women.

Iowa plantAgriprocessors plant

Many of the workers had toiled in the frigid plant for years -- dismembering, gutting and carving cattle, chicken and turkey carcasses on the production line.

They worked six-day weeks, made $8 an hour, and often stayed on for 13-hour shifts at the hulking plant on the edge of town. In winter, the workers arriving for the 4 a.m. shift would trudge through knee-deep snow in pre-dawn hours before the municipal snowplows made their rounds. Despite the drudgery of their lives, they were grateful for the work. It enabled them to save a little, send money home to their families in rural Mexico and Guatemala, and live in a peaceful Iowa small town, which even had a bilingual program at the local school.

The morning of the raid all that was upended.

Cleotildo Lpez, 40, was heading to his half-hour lunch break, at 10 a.m., when the raid began.

"They stopped the line and said it was lunch, but instead of lunch what we got was a huge fright," he says. The immigration agents began "rushing inside, and they were screaming -- it sounded very ugly, like an attack, or a kidnapping."

Workers were running to and fro, falling and stumbling in their panic to hide from the armed agents in black vests. The workers hid in meat-lockers, freezers, bathroom stalls or under stacks of cardboard boxes. One worker hid within a mound of chicken feathers, another in a tub of blood and guts.

Before too long, hundreds of detained workers were assembled in orderly rows, men and women apart, outside the plant.

Most were bussed away the same day, after being fingerprinted, photographed and cuffed. A few weeks later, 270 of them were sentenced -- most to five months in prison on charges of using false documents -- at improvised courtrooms at the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in Waterloo, Iowa. Their lawyers decried the severity of the charges, unusual for a workplace immigration raid, and the speed with which the accused were tried.

Some of the detainees -- including 21 workers who were underage -- were released, conditionally, the day of the raids. Forty-three immigrants, mostly women, were sent home so they could care for their children while they await court dates and probable deportation.

Every day, they sit in homes and apartments around Postville, amidst the debris of their former lives, replaying the traumatic raid in their memories. With too much time on their hands, they worry, despair -- and theyre afraid.

Veronica CumezVeronica Cumez

"At night I can't sleep, because I'm afraid someone is going to come and grab me," says 32-year-old Veronica Cumez, who lives with her 14-year-old daughter on a street of orderly homes and lawns just east of Main Street. "Maybe it's nerves," she says, "but I think they're going to come again."

Each of the released workers wear an electronic ankle bracelet with a GPS device attached, so Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can monitor their movements. They are not allowed to leave Iowa until the U.S. courts decide what to do with them. They have to charge the bracelet every day, and cannot ever take it off, not even to bathe.

The released men and women were all told by ICE they would receive letters with a court date two to three weeks after the raids, but five weeks later, most have heard nothing. "To my knowledge only three people have received their letters," says Luz Mara Rmirez, spokeswoman for aid efforts at St. Bridget's Catholic Church. "These women are desperate," she says, and the delay prolongs their uncertainty and agony.

Lawyers are trying to work with ICE and the courts to speed the process by which the former workers will be deported, or perhaps, in a few cases, allowed to remain in the country.

The men and women with ankle bracelets are thankful they are able to be with their children, but are in an increasingly impossible situation. They can neither work nor return to Mexico or Guatemala. They don't know who will pay their rent and bills in the intervening months, if charity from the Catholic and other churches dries up.

Their lives are on hold and loved ones are gone. Hundreds of husbands, brothers, uncles and friends are in prisons around the Midwest. In the following days and weeks, scores of immigrants not caught in the raid fled Postville and northeastern Iowa, leaving in hastily organized caravans for other states or the Chicago airport.

The lives of the released men and women feel like purgatory, emptied of people and meaning, filled with waiting and anxiety.

Even at midday, Cumez won't allow visitors to raise her window blinds. She has only managed one trip out of town since the day of the raids, to a Wal-Mart a half-hour away. In part, she doesn't like going out because she feels ashamed and stigmatized by the ankle bracelet. Some people have even made fun of it, she says, comparing it to the band some Guatemalan villagers put around chickens' feet, to keep track of them.

Her only activity is a daily trip to St. Bridget's church, the nerve center of relief efforts. Parked in her driveway are two pickup trucks belonging to former roommates who are now in detention, serving out sentences before they are deported. Tacked to the wall is a list of cleaning days for the house's seven former residents: Lucio, Veronica, Adelo, Luis, Ramn, Nayo, Marvin.

Only one of them isn't in prison: Veronica.

Since they've already caught her, when asked why she's still afraid of immigration, she shakes her head. "I'm just still afraid, because when they came after us, people were crying, others screamed, others ran; it was like a war in there. One still feels very sad, and very afraid."

She says an immigration agent struck her on her face and head with his hand while he pulled her out of her hiding spot amid boxes used to pack chickens. He apologized afterward, telling her he thought she was a man.

Cleotildo Lpez, who is Cumez's uncle, from the same municipality of San Miguel Dueas in Guatemala, was released with an ankle bracelet so he could look after his 17-year-old son Abner, who also worked at the plant. Two of his brothers who also worked at Agriprocessors are in prison, as are several nephews. He can't fathom how he's expected to keep a roof over his head, or avoid becoming depressed, in the months ahead, without work.

Elvira Esparza, 28, has a U.S.-born, two-year-old son. Unlike the majority of men and women with ankle bracelets, who want only to be deported quickly, she hopes she will be allowed to stay in the United States since her son is a citizen and has a condition that threatens his eyesight if it is not closely monitored. She worries that if she is deported to Mexico, where she'll have no health insurance, she will not be able to provide him with proper medical care.

Even a month later, she weeps whenever she begins speaking about the raid, and when she does, her son begins to cry too. "It was such a huge trauma ... they surrounded us as if we were delinquents." She was so frightened, she says, she didn't leave her home for three days after her release.

Her husband has been away from Postville looking for work in Burlington, Iowa, but not having much luck, and now thinks of heading to Georgia or Tennessee. "I've told him, you keep going, just leave me. Because, anyways, the worst that could have happened to me in my life already has happened. This is it for me."

For his part, Lpez says he would rather be sent to prison to await deportation with the others rather than live with the anxiety of being dependent on Postville's charity and the free food pantry organized by the churches. "It would have been better if they had just taken us that same day," he says. "Because how am I going to earn a check, pay what I don't have? They're going to evict me from my house, and what am I going to do? That's what I think all the time."

At 11 a.m., Lpez fetches his charger for one of his two daily sessions plugging the ankle bracelet into the wall socket. For the duration of the charge, he's literally chained to the wall. He looks ahead with the blank stare and glazed over eyes many of Postville's former meatpackers have.

"There's nothing left here," he says.

This is a streaming MP4 video - you'll need Quicktime 6 or later to view it.

Related Articles:

Immigration Raids Lead U.S. to a Moral, Legal Crisis

Rush to Prosecute Leaves Immigrant Victims of Crimes Without Protection

ICE Raid on Kosher Slaughterhouse May Cause Meat Shortage

Panic in Iowa

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