Iowa Public Television


Town Wonders If It's Next To Face Immigration Raid

posted on August 29, 2008

PERRY, Iowa (AP) — Immigration agents had barely left Postville when word hit Perry, about 200 miles to the southwest, that another raid was coming.

The rumor, which turned out to be false, spread like prairie fire through this central Iowa city's Hispanic community, reflecting a new reality for many small towns that can't be shaken.

In places like Perry, where Hispanics now make up at least a quarter of the population, residents are left wondering, "Are we next?"

"We are more vulnerable now," asked Angelica Cardenas, 28, who works in Perry's school system. "There is always fear of something like this, but with these raids, we know now it's real."

The government's shift to high-profile immigration raids — 389 people were arrested at Postville's Agriprocessors Inc. on May 12, and 595 were rounded up at Howard Industries Inc. of Laurel, Miss., on Monday — has instilled fear in towns across the country.

"These raids have really highlighted the difficulties towns face in this situation," said Ana-Maria Garcia Wahl, an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University who studies immigration issues in the Midwest and South. "I'm not sure all of these towns have an ability to cope and provide the crisis intervention."

Postville has lost more than a quarter of its pre-raid population of 2,300. Besides the detained workers, scores more fled or went into hiding.

People were pushed out of jobs and homes. Children were separated from parents. Businesses verged toward collapse.

Like Postville, Perry has been subjected to a sweeping demographic shift brought on by a meatpacking plant on the outskirts of town.

The Hispanic community in the city, which has about 7,600 residents, has grown gradually over the past 20 years, officials said.

"It's a different community than when I was growing up, for sure," said Brett Roberts, who works at an insurance company in Perry. "That's not a bad thing, but it's a fact."

The city's relatively newfound diversity can be seen on the streets, where the six-block downtown is home to a half-dozen Hispanic businesses, including a popular Mexican restaurant and a bakery a few doors down.

The plant that attracted most of the Hispanics sits a little more than a mile away. It was built by Oscar Mayer and has been around for decades, though its ownership has switched hands several times.

Tyson Foods Inc., which took over the plant in 2001, uses it to produce pork products. With about 1,200 workers, the plant is Perry's largest employer.

When Mayor Viivi Shirley watched TV news reports of the Postville raid, one of her first thoughts was, "Thank God it wasn't Perry."

Soon after hearing about the raid at Agriprocessors, where more than half the employees were found to be illegal immigrants, Shirley sought out the Tyson plant's manager to ask about the legal status of its workers.

She left that meeting satisfied that Tyson's house was in order, but she was still unnerved by the thought of a raid in her town. Shirley said she's proud of the way newer Hispanic residents have melded with Perry's older, mostly Caucasian residents and fears a raid would undo years of progress.

For their part, Tyson officials say they are confident their workers are in the country legally.

Applicants must go through a federally backed immigration verification system, Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said. The company's starting wages range from $10 to $13.65 an hour, with benefits such as health insurance and paid vacations and holidays.

"We have zero tolerance for employing people who are not authorized to work in the U.S. and use all available tools provided by the U.S. government to verify the documents of the people we hire," Mickelson said.

He said audits at Tyson facilities are conducted regularly, including some by an outside company.

Shirley and others in town are not naive.

Police Chief Dan Brickner is matter of fact when asked if there are illegal residents in the city: "Yeah. I'm sure there are."

After seeing two large-scale raids in Iowa in a little more than a year — Agriprocessors and a meatpacker in Marshalltown — Perry officials recently made preparations for handling one in their town.

School Superintendent Randy J. McCaulley said the school system has an emergency plan in place for an immigration raid, just as it does for other possible calamities, such as a tornado, fire or intruder.

Parents have received a note seeking clarification of their emergency contact information and reassuring them that students will be kept safe in the event of raid.

Still, fear lingers among Perry's Hispanic community.

"You can see that people are more scared in general," said Rosa Gonzalez of the advocacy group Hispanics United for Perry. "Some of them, they don't even tell you directly but people don't go outside like they used to and things like that."

Wendy Goodale, director of Perry's Chamber of Commerce, said Hispanics have helped revive the community, giving local businesses a boost while many rural areas have struggled through tough economic times.

She thinks it could be a crippling blow to Perry if something pushed the Hispanic population out of town.

"It's such a huge chunk of our community," Goodale said. "It would be a huge hit to our community, culturally, economically, our businesses, our people — a huge hit."

Tags: immigration industry Iowa jobs meat news Postville