Postville, Ia. — Imagine this is your hometown, population 2,320, in the middle of hilly Iowa farm country.
Walk down the street and it might appear exciting at first.
African natives wear colorful robes, and Hasidic Jews white ones. African-Americans from southern U.S. cities hang out open second-story windows on Main Street. Pacific Islanders chew and spit a concoction – beetle nut and tobacco wrapped in leaves – popular in their tiny island country of Palau. Among them are Guatemalan women who wear ankle bracelets because they were arrested in The Raid.
All mingle near a massage parlor where a real estate agent’s office once stood.
Perhaps no small town in Iowa, or even in America, has faced a social upheaval as drastic as that of Postville.
For the last 20 years, one business has created an ever-shifting population and changed the dynamics of a largely white, northeast Iowa farm town.
After federal agents rounded up 389 illegal immigrants at Agriprocessors in May, a controversial summer led to a fall of new, louder dissatisfaction. One researcher says the town has become “a slaughterhouse slum.”
Yet when you talk to longtime residents, you find some who voice opposing views based on the hard reality of economics.
“This town would be in a world of hurt if that plant closed,” said Jeff Mott, owner of the local hardware store.
Others have simply had enough.
“I was for Agriprocessors when they came here,” said Fred Comeau, owner of the Brick Pizza & Eatery. “Today, I would help them pack. They have destroyed Postville.”
How ‘picturesque town’ changed over 20 years
Longtime residents quietly grumbled when Hasidic Jews moved to Postville and opened Agriprocessors, the kosher meat processing plant, in 1987. After an Iowa author wrote a book on a simmering dissent in 2000 among locals, Jewish owners and immigrant plant workers, a quiet acceptance was advanced, at least on the surface.
Immigrants from more than 20 counties were said to be settling in and raising children as the town’s population became a quarter minority by 2000. People learned each other’s ways. A multicultural center was opened in 2003. English classes were liberally offered. The radio station offered Hispanic programming. The Lutheran church erected a menorah. A diversity council was formed. A new slogan, “Hometown for the World,” was promoted.
But today, newly recruited plant workers – the poor from the south, Pacific Islanders from halfway around the world, and natives of Sudan and Somalia -are packing 10-deep into rental homes. Some workers say they are only here for a few extra bucks and will soon head home. The city hired three new part-time cops to face new worries of crime. New housing ordinances are under consideration by city officials. And new groups of people come and go every week, creating an uneasy tension that is palpable on the street.
“When I first went to Postville in the early 1990s, it was a bucolic town in the most picturesque part of Iowa,” said Stephen Bloom, author of the book “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.”
“The town has become ruined,” Bloom said. “It has become a slaughterhouse slum. Postville has become a way station and revolving door of the latest new immigrants who can get away with working legally and illegally.”
Company officials say Agriprocessors has helped regional farmers market their product, added retail business to the town and ushered in prosperity. Researchers who write about the social turmoil have an agenda, says company spokesman Chaim Abrahams.
“The lifestyle didn’t change much from what I hear,” said Abrahams, who moved to Postville from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Some residents say otherwise.
Personal connections are the key, townspeople say
Rodney Livingood has been a Postville barber for 48 years.
“Postville was the town a long time ago,” he said. “It was a clean town with German descendants. Now you walk past the houses – I haven’t been in them, but the curtains are torn down, the storm doors are open and people walk out and spit. They don’t have the means to live like we do. Everybody wants to go back the way it was.”
Long ago, there was a German-language newspaper. But as decades passed, most descendants had similar backgrounds.
Carol Lange graduated from high school here in 1966 before living in cities across the United States. She returned to take care of her elderly mother in 2003.
“Back then you had a feeling that everyone was connected,” she said. “Unless the new transients can build community, it’s going to be a revolving door until they run out of resources and go home.”
Lange saw it happen once.
“The Guatemalans settled here and were religious people who raised families. They had a parade down the street on the Feast of Gaudalupe, and it was wonderful,” she said. “So it’s not the people, it’s the camaraderie. It’s what makes Mayberry Mayberry.”
Many residents want to be clear: Much of the reason they haven’t spoken out over the years is they didn’t want to be labeled bigots. They have no problem with workers of whatever racial or ethnic background, just with the company.
Agriprocessors management has been accused by the government of mistreating a work force largely of illegal immigrants. The Iowa attorney general’s office has charged Agriprocessors owner Abraham Aaron Rubashkin; his son, Sholom Rubashkin; and three other company employees with 9,311 child labor law violations.
Other court filings suggest that managers at the kosher meat-processing plant may have violated overtime and record-keeping provisions of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act.
A Des Moines Register report in September found 14 percent of rental properties in town were owned by two companies associated with Agriprocessors – and many are rented to new recruited workers.
“People are fed up. They need to stand up,” said Jeff Abbass, who works at a Postville radio station and is urging people to show support for a new housing ordinance being drafted by city officials that places restrictions on rental homes.
Merle Turner, a retired teacher, has been teaching English to immigrants in Postville since the 1990s. She couldn’t turn away people such as the young child who knocked on her door and begged her to teach her Ukrainian father English. “Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Guatemala and Mexico, Bangladesh and Belarus. I can’t even remember them all.”
When asked if Postville is better off from this lesson in diversity, she hesitates.
“I think I am better for each individual,” she said. “My husband always wanted to travel, and we couldn’t. So we’d bring other countries right here to our kitchen table. You get a better understanding of people in the world, and you get to understand yourself better when you see what other people believe.”
What needs to happen now is what has happened before, she said. Bring people together, sit around a table and learn about each other’s ways. After all, when the Jewish community moved to Postville years ago, they didn’t consistently mow their yards. Gradually, they learned it was important to people here, and complied.
Anger over ‘despair’ and ‘uneasy’ feeling
Some Postville residents remain angry that the company and its owners haven’t faced more punishment. Yet that emotion is tempered by the fact that the plant is the town’s major employer and is partly responsible for one of the highest percentages of growth of any Iowa town from 1990 to 2000 – 54 percent.
“Ask them what business was like 20 years ago,” Abrahams said.
When asked, Sharon Drahn, editor of the Postville Herald-Leader, said: “I’m sick and tired of hearing people say they were the savior and took us from the depths of despair. Those were tough times no matter where you were.”
Many are also sad that a town that took this long to reach a point of stability is unsettled again. Among the problems: Lines grow long at the food bank, where the 30 families served have turned into 150. On one recent day, there was still a line at 5 p.m., four hours after the food bank opened.
“It’s like starting over again,” said Darcy Radloff, the city clerk. “Dealing with a transient population is a struggle.
“But as far as private business, the city has no control over them. Our interest is the citizens, their safety and well-being.”
Mark Grey, a University of Northern Iowa professor and director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, is writing a book about Postville and 20 years of transformation.
“I don’t know anyone who says this works now,” Grey said. “You bring in people with no ties to the community who realize they are not going to be here for the long term. So you have this sense it’s a very uneven place. It really feels uneasy.”
Workers keep arriving; will they stay long?
Yet people travel halfway around the world to work here.
Among Postville’s population are people such as Lyubov Tavyanskaya, who moved to town from Ukraine about10 years ago, learned the English language, and worked at Agriprocessors.
“You don’t know why people come to America?” she asked. “For a better life and job.”
She packaged chickens for two years, then went on to work in a nursing home, earned her certified medical assistant degree and now is looking for hospital work.
Two months ago she earned her citizenship. Local friends threw her a party last week at the multicultural center.
“It’s a little bit different now,” she said. “American people don’t like changes. They’re afraid. They’re afraid they will make some crimes. I think we need to move someplace else, too, but not because of the people. Because there’s not too much jobs around. Not everyone can work in the plant.”
On a street corner near the high school, a large two-story home holds 10 workers with a day off from Agriprocessors. They recently arrived from Palau Islands, near Guam in the Pacific. They are legal workers because of an agreement between the countries.
“I came from seven miles north of the equator,” said Ding Ngotel. “When I got here a month ago it was 60 degrees. That’s cold.”
He said he was surprised there were so few white people in town.
“There are more than 100 of us Palauans here,” he said. “We don’t have a car. We watch TV and play games. For me, I’m not staying a long time. Maybe a year or year and a half. Save and go back and start a business or something. Back home, we only make $2.50 an hour. Here, it’s $10. Money is not all of it. I just wanted to get out and experience life.”
Like Ngotel, most are in their 20s, and a third are women, he said.
“I’m not staying long,” said Rolinda William, 29, spitting beetle nut and tobacco juice off the porch. “I’m not staying for the snow.”
Next to the house, people drift into the multicultural center. Two or three a week ask Abbass, whose radio station is next door, for a ride or money to leave town.
This stew of humanity is cooking in new flavors daily, such as Muslims from Sudan packing chickens in a Jewish kosher plant.
“A nuclear bomb has gone off there in terms of immigration issues,” said Bloom. “It’s a social laboratory for what can go wrong.”