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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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But Herrera was also among those who believed Agriprocessors' days were numbered. "All the symptoms are there," he told me, sitting in KPVL's control room during a break. "The owners are just getting what they can out of the plant while they can, and soon they'll sell or declare bankruptcy and get out of town."

In a conversation the previous month, New York-based Agriprocessors spokesman Menachem Lubinsky had denied this possibility but admitted to me that the embattled company was having trouble replacing its stable Hispanic workforce. Some of the employees brought in to replace those arrested "did not work out," he said.

In addition to the Palauans, the company recruited Somalis -- mostly from Minneapolis -- who can also work legally due to their refugee status. One Friday afternoon during my visit, groups of Somalis walked about Postville's downtown, mingling with black Americans recruited from the South and Midwest and Mexican Americans from Texas. The plant was closed for the Sabbath, and the inebriated payday scene felt more Bourbon Street than Main Street. One worker, spotting his supervisor pulling into the bank in his pickup, yelled drunkenly down the block and managed to cajole a $10 advance through the driver's window.

Over at Club 51, workers crowded elbow-to-elbow at the long bar under a sign reading "Hunters Welcome." Outside, bumming cigarettes in the rain, 39-year-old Marcus Valdez pondered his first three weeks in Postville. He'd come here from Belmont, Texas, with his wife and two kids, and he spoke in a thick drawl. As a kid, Valdez told me, he had slaughtered hogs on his father's farm, so he felt suited to the work trimming turkey carcasses. "I feel proud when the supervisors walk by and see me cutting right," he said.

On the face of it, he's just the sort of worker Agri might have hung a recovery on, but Valdez was already disgruntled. So far he'd seen no money; the company had deducted his $475-a-month rent and security deposit from his first few paychecks. Agri also shorted him a buck on the hourly wage promised by recruiters in Amarillo -- plant managers told him the probationary wage would be $9.35, not the $10 to $11 he expected. Given his skills, Valdez didn't think that was fair.

As we talked, it grew louder and rowdier inside the bar. Later, while waiting for the commode, I saw a fistfight nearly break out among three men, one of whom had been peddling baggies of marijuana. Postville's police chief, Michael Halse, has complained publicly about higher crime since the raid -- including a double stabbing last July involving three former Agri employees. Halse hired three new part-time officers -- every weekend, squad cars linger outside Club 51, awaiting the inevitable brawl.

This rough-and-tumble crowd frightens the townspeople. Even some of Agri's former workers are cowed. María Laura Gómez, a Guatemalan detained in the raid, tells me she'll leave Postville if she can swing a deal to escape deportation by cooperating with federal investigators looking into Agri. "It's gotten ugly," she says. "I don't like living here anymore."

On November 4, true to Herrera's prediction, Agriprocessors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The week before that, top Agri officials, including Sholom Rubashkin -- the founder's son and one-time chief operating officer -- were charged with federal immigration violations and fraud. And now the meatpacker is on the block; an Israeli suitor balked on its $40 million bid in February, leaving Agri with a mountain of unpaid debts, so the court scheduled an auction for March 23. Postville residents fear that the plant will be bought and pillaged for usable assets, leaving the town, once again, without a lifeline. (Likewise, locals of Laurel, Mississippi, fret over rumors that Howard Industries, their town's top employer, may outsource manufacturing to China or Mexico -- a potential development that many view as an economic death sentence.)

 
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