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2 Iowa towns, 2 perspectives on immigration raids

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POSTVILLE, Iowa - For immigrant advocates, the raid on a meatpacking plant in Postville last May was evidence of all that is wrong with large-scale arrests of illegal workers.

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Families were hurt, and empty shops and lines at the food bank show that the town was, too. One rental agency says nearly 70 percent of its properties are vacant. The City Council even sought a federal disaster designation because of the lingering effects of the raid on the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse.

"At what point do we acknowledge that the system is so broken that we're no longer willing to participate?" wondered Maryn Olson, a coordinator with Postville Response Coalition, a group established after the raid.

But as the Obama administration considers a new policy on immigration raids, another Iowa town less than 100 miles away has emerged from a raid on its largest employer with a different perspective.

People in Marshalltown acknowledge that scars remain from the December 2006 raid at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant there, but the city of 25,000 has moved on.

Marshalltown Mayor Gene Beach said the raid hurt efforts to integrate Latinos into the larger community but that most residents have little sympathy for the 92 illegal immigrants arrested in Marshalltown during a sweep at Swift plants in six states.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "has the right to come in, give adequate due process and treat them in a humane way," Beach said. "The current law is that people are to be legal, and ICE has the responsibility to enforce the law."

Jeff Heiden, a real estate agent and commander of the Marshalltown VFW post, served a National Guard tour in Arizona helping to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Heiden said he saw men and women crossing the border and felt powerless to stop them.

"I think the raids were a good idea because they deter employers from hiring people who maybe haven't been verified," he said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to announce soon the results of a department-wide review of work-site immigration raids.

President Barack Obama was critical of ICE when campaigning for the White House, referring to people "terrorized by ICE immigration raids," but Napolitano made clear last week that raids will continue.

"Make no mistake," she told reporters in Los Angeles. "We will be doing work-site enforcement. There will be employees, as well as employers, who ultimately are picked up in those enforcement actions."

Napolitano said the focus will be on employers rather than illegal immigrants - cutting off the demand instead of going after the supply.

The immigration raid in Postville - population about 2,000 - pushed immigrants out of jobs and homes, and in some cases separated children from parents.

Months after agents arrested 389 workers, state and federal prosecutors filed thousands of charges, ranging from labor law and immigration violations to bank fraud, against top managers. Agriprocessors sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and a conservator is trying to find a buyer.

Chad Wahls, principal at Postville's Cora B. Darling Elementary and Middle School, said that within weeks of the raid, 114 of his 352 students left school. Over time, 87 new students enrolled, mostly children of the replacement labor force.

Wahls said the proportion of Hispanic students at the school fell from about 55 percent to "the low 40s."

Though he thinks immigration laws should be enforced, Wahls said he wished the U.S.-born children of immigrants could remain in the country.

"Let the kids of these families stay on, go to the Army, do some kind of service," he said. "We spent all this money educating them. Why just throw that away?"

Residents of both Marshalltown and Postville seem to share a view that federal officials need to take into consideration that illegal immigrants are eager to take difficult, often messy jobs that many Americans wouldn't consider.

"Why wouldn't you come up here?" said Beach, the Marshalltown mayor. "We've got jobs that pay $13 an hour, and they're willing to do those jobs."

Ken Anderson, president of the Marshalltown Chamber of Commerce, said he's heard the calls by the Obama administration to crack down on employers. But he questions whether there is a law enforcement solution to the illegal immigration issue, regardless of who is targeted.

He noted that some of the immigrants who were caught up in the crackdown had been living in the United States for years and had integrated themselves into their adopted communities.

"Communities like us pay the price in my view," Anderson said.

Although the raid at the Swift plant, which was bought soon afterward by Brazilian meat company JBS S.A., was only a quarter the size of the Postville one, immigrant advocates say many illegal workers who avoided the sweep remain in the community but lead underground lives.

Sister Christine Feagan of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Marshalltown said illegal immigrants need the jobs too much to leave.

"They (ICE agents) came for one shift at Swift," Feagan said. "Ever since then, people were saying: `What about people who didn't go to work that day? What about the people who didn't show up for the second shift?'

"So, it's kind of like, is the second shoe ever going to drop?"

In Postville, nearly every shoe possible has dropped.

The raid removed about 20 percent of the town's adult work force in one day, and most of the contract laborers who filled their jobs left after the slaughterhouse shut much of its operations as managers faced criminal charges. About 300 people now work on the plant's chicken and turkey lines.

In November, the City Council declared Postville a humanitarian and economic disaster area, but federal officials said the town didn't qualify for help.

The Rev. Paul Ouderkirk of St. Bridget's Catholic Church blamed the raids on a broken system for naturalizing immigrants.

"You can't process them fast enough, so what do you do?" Ouderkirk said. "You put them in shackles. I mean, give me a break."

Craig Balcom, a restaurant owner in Marshalltown, said immigrants need to obey U.S. laws, but he agreed that there must be a better way of handling the problem.

"It does tear apart families," Balcom said.

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