'What Did It Achieve?': Documentary Examines Largest Immigration Raid In U.S. History

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The Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008, in Postville, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
The Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008, in Postville, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

It was a normal day in May 2008 when helicopters surrounded the tiny town of Postville, Iowa. Then about 1,000 ICE agents descended on a meatpacking plant in the town.

"What started was the biggest immigration raid in U.S. history: 389 immigrants were detained of which 287 ended up being deported," says Univision's Almudena Toral, who produced "America First," a new documentary on the raid.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Toral (@almudenatoral) about the people she profiled and the lessons she learned, as immigration raids once again ramp up under the Trump administration.

Interview Highlights

On the makeup of Postville, Iowa

"It's a tiny town, 2,000 people, more or less. It was founded in 1843 by German immigrants. It's an agricultural town in the middle of Iowa with a meatpacking plant that's the main employer in the town. It's peaceful, rolling hills, corn town … very cold in winter."

On the about 100 immigrants who were detained but not deported

"Some of them — mostly women who had small children and nobody else who could take care of them — were able to stay and stay free to return to their families with ankle monitors, so they had to be monitored regularly. They couldn't work, but they were able to stay. And some of them were able to legalize their status eventually."

On why Agriprocessors employed so many undocumented immigrants

"This particular plant was very controversial. There were a lot of issues going on at this plant, not only immigration related. The president of the company, Sholom Rubashkin, who is an Orthodox Jew from New York, had a lot of financial dealings going on. He ended up serving time in prison for 86 counts of financial fraud, but he didn't end up serving time for the immigration violations. There were minors that were working at the plant. There were sexual abuse cases that were documented. There was a lot of things going on at the plant that were just not right."

"The whole county, not only the towns, suffered, immigrants and nonimmigrants alike."

Almudena Toral

On how the raid impacted the town

"The demographic impact was huge. The town lost almost half of its population after the raid. It was also devastating economically. The plant that was the main economic motor of the town went bankrupt and later reopened under a foreign owner. Many workers didn't get paid for months and eventually lost their jobs. A lot of local businesses closed down. The whole county, not only the towns, suffered, immigrants and nonimmigrants alike. That's what we heard during our reporting for months."

On how Postville residents viewed immigrants

"This town has a high percentage of immigrants, but still, the county where it's located at voted majority for Trump, over 58 percent for Trump. And it wasn't unusual. We met a lot of Trump supporters. The interesting thing is that a lot of them voted for Trump on a one-issue basis. So some of the ones that lived in Postville were pro-immigration, but for example, the economics and jobs [were] a huge issue for them, so they voted for him that way, or [on] national security, some of the Jewish people. So yes, it's common that that clash happens there all the time."

On how the children of deported parents were affected by the raid

"That was, personally for me, was the most heartbreaking effect to see the effect on children who lived the raid, whose parents got deported, or even didn't get deported, but they managed to stay with long-term consequences immigration-wise and with legal consequences. The effect on kids is dramatic. There's been studies in Postville about low fertility rates afterwards and the psychological impact it had on children. In this case, the girl that we profiled … she is the only one in her family that was born in the U.S. Her family is from Guatemala. Her dad was arrested and put in prison for six months, and later deported during the Postville raid. Her mom, [who was] also undocumented, wasn't at the meatpacking plant but got really really scared and ended up going back to Guatemala with the girls, with her daughters. And the difference is striking. [Her] sisters in Guatemala don't even go to school. One of them is 5 years old. The other one is 15 and the other one is 16. So she has the whole pressure of sustaining her family in the future. There's a lot of hopes put on her, but it's also extremely difficult psychologically for her. She even mentions at some point [in the] documentary, ‘I don't even have anybody to give me hugs.’ And to see that, to see that girl just going through life in the United States by herself was really heartbreaking."

"This raid in 2008 cost over $5 million that came out of taxpayer pockets, and what did it achieve?"

Almudena Toral

On what happened to Agriprocessors after the raid

"The owner who employed all those people, Sholom Rubashkin, went to prison. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison for 86 counts of financial fraud not related to the immigration violations. Although in December of last year, Donald Trump condoned his sentence, and he was set free. The current owner is Canadian. He's not American. And the plant reopened after a little while. They really struggled to find workers. They brought workers from the most unexpected places all over the country — rehab centers, homeless shelters, they even brought Pacific Islanders from Palau — and none of it worked. They didn't end up staying. It's dangerous and hard work. So at the end, hundreds of Somali refugees ended up arriving in Postville, Iowa, and filled those jobs, that void that was left by the deported workers."

On how similar raids have increased under the Trump administration

"It's very interesting and very timely because Donald Trump has increased massive worksite raids again. After the Postville raid under the Bush administration, there was only one big immigration raid at a worksite that had already been planned, so Bush executed it. But after that the outrage the public outrage about these raids and the efficiency of it was so loud that they stopped doing them. So there's been raids, of course, at homes and other places but not on worksites at this scale until now with the Donald Trump administration. We've seen over the last few months several massive worksite raids just like the one in Postville, in Ohio, in Tennessee, and I think we'll expect to be seeing more of them."

On what she hopes people will learn from this documentary

"I think this documentary can really shed light on the efficiency of these worksite enforcement operations when we think about are they really efficient? This raid in 2008 cost over $5 million that came out of taxpayer pockets, and what did it achieve? Those jobs did not go back to Americans. They went to Somali refugees. Some of the people that were deported ended up coming back. It caused a lot of [distress] to children and to the economy of that town and the county in general. When you look at the overall efficiency of what the raid accomplished, one really questions was it really worth it? So I think some of those lessons can be really applied to what's been happening now, and hopefully raises some intelligent conversation about if it's worth the cost of these massive worksite operations."

This segment aired on July 30, 2018.



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