It’s no rumor…the helicopters are here…..
…389 workers arrested…
…….“Pablo, take care of my children.”
…..Tell anyone who is afraid or alone to come to St. Bridget’s.
………Postville Church Offers Refuge.
……Give us courage, Give us hope…Give us love..
The litany read at “The Summons,” an Interfaith Prayer Service remembering the 10th Anniversary of the Postville immigration raid were not written for dramatic effect. They were the actual words heard and spoken and headlines from the chaotic and terrorizing events of the day.
On May 12, 2008, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) swept into the small town of Postville with helicopters, buses, and vans with hundreds of armed federal officials from ICE as well as other federal, state and local agencies to arrest undocumented workers of the meat packing plant in that town. It was the largest raid of a workplace in US history. 389 workers were arrested.
The effect on the town with a population of little over 2000 was devastating.
Suzanne Willey, member of Zion Lutheran Church, Castalia, was teaching kindergarten at the Postville School that day.
“The day of the raid and the days following were the hardest days of my teaching career. I was teaching kindergarten. It started out like any other day. We heard helicopters and then heard immigration was here at the plant. Later we were told to keep some kids that might be affected by the raid. They were sent to the high school gym, while we dismissed the rest of the students. Then there was a bus to take the immigrant students to the Catholic Church in town. Teachers were told that we could go along to the church if we wanted to volunteer to help. I chose to go along with several other teachers. I was over whelmed when I walked in. The church was packed. So much sadness in one place. I felt so totally helpless when I saw their faces.
Already there were people in the kitchen preparing food. I was so proud of Sister Mary McCauley and how our community had all come forward to help. People were soon bringing in food and supplies.
Even when I had heard earlier in the day that immigration was here, I had not imagined the impact or the inhumaneness. We stayed until 9:00 or so trying to console people and help any way we could. It’s very scary for young children to see their parents crying and not fully understand why. I could not make sense of it, how could I expect a 5 year old to?
It wasn’t until I saw the actual pictures of the raid at the plant on the 10 o’clock news that it really hit me what had just happened. I literally cried myself to sleep that night knowing it was nothing compared to what the people at the church were going through.
The next days at school were really tough. All the 5 year old questions! “What was happening? Why were so and so not in school? Did their Mom and Dad get taken to jail? What did they do? Will they be back? Could my Mom and Dad be arrested? Who decides who gets to stay?”
On and on with questions that I had no good answers for. They had seen some news reports plus had gotten information from parents. How to make sense of it all?”
Edie Jacobson, member of First Lutheran, Decorah, carried one of ten roses for each year since the raid at the prayer service. She recalls the horror of that day.
“Attending The Summons: The Tenth Anniversary of the Postville Raid brought back many memories of the time of the raid. The enormity and cruelty of a raid that could arrest, detain and try nearly 400 undocumented immigrants and the effect on the families of those arrested is mind boggling. There were so many people helping in the aftermath of that horrific event in many ways -by calling detention facilities to find out where the arrested were imprisoned, donating food, money and necessities, helping those left behind pay their bills, getting them to doctor appointments, etc.”
Some speculate that Postville was chosen for this unprecedented invasion because it was a small town and no one would mind if workers in the country illegally were deported. If that is true, they vastly underestimated small town Iowa.
Along with the horror and terror of that day is the memory of how people stepped up to help their neighbors, regardless of where they were born.
Over 200 protesters gathered at the National Cattle Congress where the detainees were held, and led a vigil outside on their behalf. Volunteers came to provide food, counseling, and legal advice. Suzanne Willey remembers:
“I was proud at how our community stepped up to support these people. I was also proud of our principal, Mr. Wahls, his Dad, also Mr. Wahls, and our school community for all the support offered to not only the immigrants, but to us as teachers trying to cope with what was happening. Mr. Wahls went to the church with a bus every day, to bring those kids to school. He had to convince those parents that we would keep those kids safe and return them at the end of the day. We tried to create a sense of normalcy for the kids knowing nothing would be “normal” for them for a long time.
I wanted to be at the anniversary hoping to finally make sense of it all. It did stir up past feelings of helplessness. I was glad to get a chance to visit with Pedro and hear where his life had taken him. I was sad to hear that we have made little progress in changing immigration laws in 10 years.”
Edie Jacobson also remembers the positive way people came forward:
“The very positive thing I remember from that time is forming relationships with those left in Postville either because they weren’t working at the time of the raid and therefore not arrested or because they were single parent caregivers for their children and were released wearing a GPS device.
Also, I remember forming relationships with the amazing volunteers who served the community. Later I and many others from Decorah were involved with a group of 9 men who had served time and were released into the community to serve as material witnesses against the plant owner Sholom Rubashkin. They were very fine, hardworking God worshiping individuals who wanted to be able to feed the families that they left behind in Guatemala and Mexico, families that were and continue to be food insecure. I am awed by the amount of time and money donated by Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faith communities.”
One of the speakers at the event was Dr. Erik Camayd Freixas. He had been employed by court officials to translate in the hearings. He was appalled by the way those who were arrested were being coerced into waiving their basic rights, with no understanding of what they agreed to.
“They were denied the universal right of defense. I denounced the abuse in an essay that helped secure a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling (USSC 08-108) to disallow identity theft charges against unknowing migrants, removing the threat of frivolous prosecution from 7 million undocumented workers.” (DesMoines Register, May 15, 2018)
The purpose of the Summons was not just to recall the horror, but to lift up hope and summon the people of God to work for justice so that this doesn’t continue to happen.
As Edith Jacobson observes:
“A very positive effect of the raid is that it awakened in many, myself included, the realization of the needs of undocumented immigrants and turned us into IMMIGRATION ACTIVISTS. We have been forever changed by this. We need to continue working toward new and just immigration laws.
It was cathartic attending the service at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, praying with and hearing testimonies by people from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim faith traditions, all of us brothers and sisters of the Old Testament.
We ended the service with the cry “ESCUCHA, ESCUCHA! ESTAMOS EN LA LUCHA! Translated it is LISTEN! LISTEN! WE ARE FIGHTING! We must continue in the fight for just immigration laws.
As Bishop Steven Ullestad said in his opening remarks:
Ten years ago tomorrow the United States Government invaded my home town.
Almost 400 people were arrested and their families divided.
Children, Latino, Latina and Anglo were terrorized.
School classrooms were virtually emptied.
Kitchen cupboards went bare and houses no longer had families.
Today we remember the terrorism imposed by our own government.
We also remember the redeeming power of God.
By God’s Spirit the people of this community have been united in a common purpose of survival, healing and redemption.
Today we remember the horror and also the power of God to inspire the resilient people of Postville.
May God continue to bless your witness.
If you want to know how you and your congregation can help immigrants, contact the Northeastern Iowa Synod AMMPARO Network.