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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.

It all began with the whir and flicker of helicopters on May 12, 2008, an incongruous sound in a tiny Iowa town tucked amid cornfields. All over Postville, people craned their necks from orderly lawns, phones rang, and gossip flew. Reverend Stephen Brackett, the town's Lutheran pastor, was on his day off and didn't hear the helicopters at first, but when his church secretary called to tell him something unusual was happening, he at once suspected what it was. For years, there were rumors that the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant at the edge of town was under scrutiny by immigration authorities. Later that morning, Brackett's wife called with confirmation: She'd spotted two helicopters and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in jackets and flak vests down by the slaughterhouse.

Brackett quickly drove to the hulking plant, which had been cordoned off by scores of ICE agents, state troopers, and sheriff's deputies. The authorities soon began to emerge from the building escorting workers, hundreds in all, and many in shackles. Mostly Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, they were loaded onto white buses emblazoned with the Homeland Security logo, and taken away for detention and trial. Watching from the safety of his car, the bespectacled, redheaded pastor knew the day would mark a low point in Postville's history. "It's like saying we'll take the 15-plus years of progress that we've made trying to gel this community together," Brackett told me, "and overnight we'll throw that away."

Indeed, the 389 arrests eliminated more than one-third of the meatpacker's workforce and nearly one-fifth of the town's population. It also prompted an exodus of hundreds more Hispanic residents who were either afraid of being targeted or simply opted to escape the town's inevitable tailspin. Postville's businesses began to suffer almost immediately. Even the Wal-Mart in Decorah, a half-hour away, called Postville mayor Robert Penrod with concerns about the economic impact. Penrod, who stepped down as mayor this month, can recall an eerie calm settling over the town, as though it were part of some Twilight Zone episode. "Before, it was all hustle bustle, and you'd see people walking up and down the streets and driving and listening to music," he told me. "Then all of a sudden, boom! I mean nobody was walking the streets."

Harder to quantify, but no less real, was the damage to an unusual multicultural experiment in America's heartland. It had begun back in 1987 when ultra-Orthodox Jews came to Postville to turn the defunct Hygrade plant into the nation's largest kosher meatpacker, which promptly became a beacon for immigrant labor. Postville proudly dubbed itself "Hometown to the World," and despite the company's recent attempts to recruit legal replacement workers from as far away as Palau, the motto has acquired an ironic ring. Ten months after the raid, the meatpacker, having declared bankruptcy, was operating at half-steam with a ragtag assembly of workers, and the town's economy remains a shambles. Back in October, Mayor Penrod told CNN that Postville was living a "freaky nightmare." And it still isn't over.

Postville's troubles reflect the collateral damage wrought by an escalation in workplace sweeps over the past several years. As part of a comprehensive multiyear strategy to increase interior enforcement, ICE sought to eliminate the "jobs magnet" that attracts undocumented immigrants from across the border.

The agency reported 5,184 workplace arrests in fiscal 2008, more than seven times the 2004 figure. Its raids have included others on the scale of Postville -- sweeps resulting in the dislocation of entire immigrant communities. Last October, ICE arrested 330 workers at the Columbia Farms poultry plant in Greenville, South Carolina. That came on the heels of a massive sweep of Howard Industries, an electronics maker in Laurel, Mississippi, where agents netted some 600 workers. The year before, 300 employees were picked up at a Massachusetts leather manufacturer, and raids in late 2006 on Swift meatpacking plants in Nebraska and five other states led to 1,300 arrests.

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