SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Postville, Iowa, home of the now-defunct Agriprocessors slaughterhouse, is a rural town struggling with diversity, brought down by political indifference and a failed immigration policy, “a little town … on the losing end of global forces bigger than itself and even its country.”
That’s the premise of “Postville, U.S.A.: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America,” scheduled for publication later this month. It’s an analysis of what went wrong 20 years after the Brooklyn-based Rubashkin family created what would become the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant.
The slim, 155-page volume is an insider’s story by Mark Grey and Michele Devlin, sociologists at the University of Northern Iowa who specialize in the changing demographics of the Midwest, and former Postville City Council member Aaron Goldsmith, a Lubavitcher Chasid active in business and city politics.
The book’s main strength is its authors’ intimacy with the story. All three spent more than a decade examining the fragile modus vivendi constructed as the town’s white, Christian population of 2,000 absorbed some 400 Chasidic Jews and several thousand immigrant laborers, mostly Latino, who arrived to work at the kosher plant. The authors provide a month-by-month chronicle of the time leading up to the May 2008 federal immigration raid at the plant and the year since, as the town’s population was decimated and its infrastructure destroyed.
Media coverage of the Agriprocessors story has focused on the Jewish angle, the specific tensions caused by Orthodox Jews moving to the town and creating their own separate, privileged world. But while the book’s authors acknowledge the “greed” of the plant’s former owners, and say it was the Jewish element of the story that kept the story in the news, they insist it was not the deciding factor in Postville’s downfall.
Viewed through a broader sociological lens, Postville’s demise emerges as even more tragic than it appeared in media reports, if only because of how easily it could happen elsewhere. It’s a situation repeated in hundreds of towns across the Midwest, say Grey and Devlin, as formerly unionized factories, facing an increasingly difficult economy in the 1980s, hired immigrants willing to work for low wages and no benefits.
The feds are complicit, they charge: While some of the immigrants arrived voluntarily, others were resettled in these towns by federal agencies and offered up to local industry as a compliant workforce.
“This is America’s new heartland,” Devlin told JTA. “Twenty to 40 percent of the population in these towns are immigrants. The towns can cope with the influx from Mexico and Central America — they all speak Spanish. But when they get people from Sudan, Somalia, Micronesia, Palau and the inner cities, it’s a big deal for these little towns. They’re overburdened and under-resourced.”
Postville was handling its diversity quite well, the authors claim, until the massive immigration raid ripped hundreds of families apart and pushed Agriprocessors into bankruptcy. In one particularly heartbreaking chapter, Devlin and Grey provide an eyewitness account of the entire operation, including a detailed look inside the makeshift detention camp where detained workers were held incommunicado.
The authors paint a damning picture of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s immigration arm, which conducted the raid, as well as the federal court that cooperated to railroad nearly 300 illegal aliens, mainly Guatemalans, into plea bargains the authors believe were obtained under false pretenses. The U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that one of the most common charge against plant employees, aggravated identity theft, was misapplied.
Grey and Devlin do not investigate the role played by Agriprocessors or its former owners in Postville’s downfall, saying they are sociologists, not lawyers or investigative journalists. Former Agriprocessors manager Sholom Rubashkin and three other plant managers go on trial Sept. 15 for federal charges including harboring illegal immigrants, and wire, mail and bank fraud. Those four plus Aaron Rubashkin, Sholom’s father and president of Agriprocessors, will be tried next year on more than 9,000 charges of state child labor law violations.
The authors’ hands-off approach to the plant and its owners is understandable from a legal perspective — as of press time, the trials have not yet begun — but it leaves a gaping hole in the book’s portrait of the myriad forces that brought Postville to its knees.
Postville’s population since the raid has shrunk by 40 percent and its tax base has been destroyed. Fewer than 50 Latinos remain from a former population of more than 1,000, most of them formerly detained illegals ordered to testify in the Sept. 15 trial.
Approximately 250 Jews also remain, unable to sell their homes. About half are Lubavitchers, some of whom are worried, Goldsmith reports, that they will not be rehired by the plant’s new owners, SHF Industries, a company formed in May by Canadian plastics manufacturer Hershey Friedman. Lubavitch kosher slaughter, or shechita, is increasingly unpopular in many Orthodox circles because of concerns regarding Chabad Messianism.
In a nine-point lesson list, the authors demand an overhaul of the country’s immigration policy, more help from government and industry for towns struggling with the effects of globalization, and ways to compel industries and organizations that deal with immigrants to adhere to “the highest ethical, legal and humane standards.” But as long as Americans continue to demand cheap food, they write, little will change.
“Many Americans are in absolute denial that the bulk of their processed and packaged food comes from illegal labor,” Devlin says. “It’s a triangle: Employers who want maximum profit, workers who need the work and consumers who want cheap food.”
Maybe people expected too much from Postville, the book concludes.
“The town never was and never could be a multicultural paradise,” it states. “Many outsiders — individuals, organizations, and the media — believed they had the right to make Postville what they wanted it to be.”