The Raid in Postville and Diminishing the Law


Richard W. Crockett


The Republican crusade against the Mexicans (for narrow political reasons) is reinforced with Immigration and Naturalization Service agency power and has now spilled over to become an assault upon small towns and local economies.  Following the raid by Immigration Customs Enforcement, May 12, 2008, on the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa where more than 390 workers were placed under arrest for their immigrant status, the plant was forced to shut down.  The plant produced “60 percent of the Kosher meat and 40 percent of the Kosher poultry throughout the nation,” according to the New York Times.  The plant was a primary engine of the local economy.  Postville over the last few years has grown from a sleepy, declining town of 1300 to a busy rural community of 3500 population directly as a result of the purchase and reopening of a closed meat packing facility by folks from a New York Jewish community, who were interested in addressing a market need for Kosher food products.  Upon re-opening, the plant initially employed immigrants from Mexico, but eventually they employed persons from Guatemala, Israel and the Ukraine.  Their legal status not withstanding, the influx of workers and the diversification of the community restored vibrancy to a declining economy and community.


At the first there were stresses and strains resulting from the presence of the new arrivals.  Some of these have been outlined in a book, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (2000) by Steven G. Bloom and also in an article in National Geographic magazine.  But eventually most of the local community came to make their peace with the new arrivals.  Some of the initial conflict came from an urban-rural conflict where differences in customs undermined social integration.  Rural and small community folks in the Midwest are usually friendly and are apt to greet you on the street whether they really know you or not.  It is an expression of self-reassurance that they are not “stuck up” or too full of themselves.  Urban folks on the other hand, living in a more impersonal environment, are more careful around strangers and are often suspicious of anyone whom they don’t know and if spoken to by a stranger they may not respond and are apt to wonder, “What do they want from me?”  This difference sent unfortunate messages, not fully understood between the groups.  Some of the divide no doubt sprang from differences in manner of dress, language and custom and reinforced initial suspicion.   Many of the new arrivals from Brooklyn, N. Y., being Orthodox in their faith, dressed in traditional attire and appeared in sharp contrast to small town, Mid-western folks of almost exclusively European ancestry. Many Hispanics spoke only Spanish.  The divide needed to be closed and eventually it was, at least they began to speak to each other and apparently came to understand that they had a mutuality of interests. And of course, dollars count.  Businesses began to benefit from the presence of the new arrivals.  But it apparently it was not to last. 


In response to the Immigration Customs Enforcement raid, Republican State Senator Mark Zieman, remarked, “ICE is doing a job that they’re charged with doing.”  Intriguingly, he added an ambiguous phrase, “but I do feel it is fallout from a failed system where government has failed to act on the immigration policy that needs to be addressed.”  What kind of action is needed?  Whatever he may have meant by that, the raid on the plant seen in the worst light seems bent on actualizing our worst nativist instincts and is playing out as an attack on the local economy in Postville.  It is in particular an attack on workers, but it will surely bubble up from consumer to merchant with devastating affects.  Mark Grey, of the University of Northern Iowa told the New York Times, “It’s absolutely devastating to the local economy.”


If one tries to attribute motives to Immigration agency action, various possibilities exist.  In politics there are “good reasons” and “real reasons” for everything.  The “good reason” for their action is that they are arresting lawbreakers, illegal immigrants guilty of an unmitigated assault upon American stability and order.  The “real reason” is nativism at  the least, and perhaps even racism, and this looms largest.  It could be described as anti-Hispanic and perhaps even anti-Semitic.  Some will argue that the workers were illegal and should be deported for breaking the immigration law.  But the history of American nativism and racism is well established, and most of our immigration law has sprung from an attempt by descendants of European immigrants to favor “their own kind,” and to exclude those they saw as unlike themselves.  At the first there were no immigration laws.  Then only northern and western Europeans were welcome, and we were inclined to pick and choose among them.  Eventually the exceptions, the Irish of “no Irish need apply” fame were included and even the Italians, who suffered fame, as “those swarthy Devils” from southern Europe, were included.  Even though revisions in our immigration law have taken place, it has not been an attempt to “be fair,” but restrictive.  It remains a rationing of acceptability, doled out to those whom we prefer to grant entrance to the United States.  This rationing is little less than enshrining racism within the law, and although it looks like a defensible position which in outward appearances sanitizes a kind of Klu Klux Klan mentality, it remains what it is, racism.  An attempt to enshrine racism within the law does not ennoble racism: it simply diminishes the law.  It is only a small stretch to consider what Anatole France reminded us, that, “the law in its splendid impartiality comes to bear on rich and poor alike for sleeping under bridges or stealing a loaf of bread.”