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A Year Without a Mexican: The Debilitating Loss of Economic Lifeblood

Undocumented workers were the economic lifeblood of small towns like Postville, Iowa -- until the immigration cops showed up.

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These high-profile busts, former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff explained, were meant to remove incentives to illegal immigration. "What is the economic magnet that is bringing people into the country to work illegally? The answer is jobs," he said at a press briefing last February. The magnet metaphor was no accident. In the view of the immigration bureaucracy, these factories comprise a mosaic of magnets that lure the undocumented from poor countries. Because the raids inevitably get big play in Spanish-language media, ICE officials know their get-tough approach will reach its intended audience -- on both sides of the border.

The tactic would seem to have little chance of surviving in the current presidency were there not some evidence that it has worked. Since 2005, according to an October report by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of people entering the country illegally has declined to about 500,000 a year, on average, from about 800,000 during the four previous years. While the faltering US economy -- particularly in housing and construction -- has certainly contributed, politically powerful immigration foes credit the ICE raids for turning the tide.

To be sure, on the campaign trail, then-candidate Obama derided the workplace raids as publicity stunts. Speaking to an anchor from the Spanish-language Univision TV network, he said he would focus on targeting exploitative employers and promised to act on comprehensive immigration reform. But on February 24, one month after President Obama took office, ICE raided an engine factory in Bellingham, Washington, where agents arrested 28 undocumented workers.

Facing criticism from the left, new Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano promised an investigation, insisting she hadn't known of the raid in advance. Whatever becomes of that probe, last month's raid underscores the difficulty of navigating between opponents of heavy-handed enforcement and immigration foes who agitate about undocumented foreigners taking American jobs -- an old argument that could gain new appeal as hundreds of thousands of workers receive pink slips.

Supposing ICE's strategy is indeed effective; there's a separate question policymakers may want to ponder: How have these raids affected the communities involved? The woes of the arrested immigrants are well documented: families torn apart, workers caught in bureaucratic limbo or slapped with souped-up identity-theft charges. But less examined are the impacts on towns and cities that the workers and their families leave behind, and on the Americans whose lives and livelihoods were intertwined with those of the newcomers.

Like many Midwestern communities, Postville was historically at the mercy of the up-and-down agricultural economy. Locals here haven't forgotten the dark 1980s, when a farm crisis plunged families into debt and set the stage for a bloodletting of population from rural America. As Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Cougar Mellencamp tried to drum up support with the Farm Aid concerts beginning in 1985, places like Postville were dying. Adding insult to injury, big-box retailers were gnawing at Main Street business. Small cafés, sporting-goods stores, and meat lockers were going extinct, not to mention general stores -- those Midwestern institutions with their pickle barrels, rough wooden floors, and panned candy on the counter.

Pastor Brackett remembers visiting town in the 1980s with his wife, Susan -- a Postville native -- and seeing the same houses for sale year after year. "It seemed like every time we came to visit, either another mainstay of the business community had closed or there were rumors that they were going to close," he said.

Postville's revival began with the 1987 reopening of the old meatpacking plant, shuttered since the 1970s. Its new operators were members of a Hasidic Jewish sect known as Lubavitchers. Founder Aaron Rubashkin, a Brooklyn butcher, quickly built Agriprocessors -- just "Agri" to the locals -- into the nation's largest kosher meatpacker, origin of brands like Aaron's Best, Rubashkin's, and Supreme Kosher. At its peak, Agri controlled 60 percent of the kosher beef market and 40 percent of kosher chicken sales.

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