Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The May 12, 2008, immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, was the stuff of an immigration hawk’s dreams.
More than 1,000 federal agents descended that day on the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant, the leading employer and economic engine of the town of about 2,000 people. By the time the raid was over, 389 undocumented immigrants had been arrested and bused off to a makeshift federal courtroom at a dance hall in nearby Waterloo. Nearly 300 of them would eventually be deported, most to Guatemala.
But what’s happened in the 10 years since the raid offers a hard dose of reality to President Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant supporters. The raid — a bigger version of the ones that the Trump administration has conducted in Ohio, Tennessee and elsewhere — has been nightmarish for tiny Postville.
In an exceptional new documentary, Univision News examines how the town suffered economically, socially and in human terms after its main business was disrupted. “America First: The Legacy of an Immigration Raid” also focuses on what should be a sobering outcome for Trump supporters — the jobs that were vacated by deportations weren’t even filled by Americans, despite an extensive effort by the plant’s operators.
The documentary is artfully produced, but what happens on the screen isn’t pretty.
Postville lost half of its population after the raid, and was plunged into an economic crisis that saw 60 percent of its homes falling into foreclosure months before the recession hit.
Families were torn apart, as shown in the documentary through the story of a 10-year-old girl whose deported parents sent her back to live with family friends in the U.S. several years ago and haven’t seen her since.
“I really miss my parents because I don’t get hugs and that kind of thing,” the girl tells an interviewer. This is a fourth-grader talking, mind you.
The immigrant community wasn’t the only one that was affected, either. The plant employed members of about 100 Jewish households, but 60 to 70 of those families moved away when Agriprocessors shut down for months in the aftermath of the raid.
The plant would return to operation under a new owner — who, by the way, is Canadian — but it struggled to replenish its workforce.
Eventually, it was forced to resort to recruiting nationwide at places like drug rehab centers and homeless shelters. It even brought in Pacific Islanders from Palau.
Nothing worked. The newcomers quickly grew tired of the gritty, dangerous and demanding physical labor at the plant, and quit.
It wasn’t until Somali refugees began arriving in town that the jobs filled up.
So much for the notion that immigrants are stealing Americans’ jobs. The documentary underscores an inconvenient truth for immigration hawks — it’s a myth that immigrants cost U.S. workers jobs. Rather, as workers at the low employment rungs move up, immigrants have historically taken those jobs, and the cycle continues as those immigrants move up.
Another interesting point involves political fallout of the raid, which was part of a yearslong campaign to deport every removable immigrant and suspected terrorist on American soil. The campaign, known as Operation Endgame, foundered amid blowback over its “shock and awe” tactics, which were on display in Postville when agents arrived in helicopters and entered the business with guns drawn. The government, which would spend $5.2 million in tax dollars between the law enforcement and court operations, also was criticized by labor groups for targeting employees instead of employers.
There would be only one other wide-scale operation during George W. Bush’s presidency, and it had already been planned when the Postville raid took place.
Now, it’s 2008 all over again, and workplace roundups have resumed.
But those who are cheering Trump’s strategy as a way to save American jobs and revive heartland communities like Postville would do well to watch the documentary and ponder its essential question: What did the raid achieve?
“Those jobs did not go back to Americans, they went to Somali refugees,” said producer Almudena Toral in an interview with the WBUR public radio program “Here & Now.” “Some of the people who were deported ended up coming back. And it caused a lot of (distress) to children and to the economy of that town.
“When you look at the overall efficiency of what the raid accomplished, one really questions, was it really worth it?”
Watch the documentary
“America First: The Legacy of an Immigration Raid” can be viewed at univision.com.