Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - New book shows still much work to do in Postville

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 6, 2009

Our View - New book shows still much work to do in Postville

Last year, about a week after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, the Press-Citizen printed a guest column by University of Northern Iowa faculty members Mark Grey and Michele Yehieli Devlin discussing the plight of the undocumented workers and describing the raid's devastating effect on the town. Grey, director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, and Yehieli, director of the Iowa Center for Health Disparities, argued that the raid highlighted the need for national comprehensive immigration reform and provided a worst-case example of why the federal government must move away from such expensive, ineffective, community-devastating, large-scale raids.

"As long as we have an immigration system that provides incentives for the undocumented to risk working here illegally and provides incentives for employers to exploit these desperate workers, situations like that in Postville will continue," they wrote. "We have set up a system that rewards immigrants and employers to cheat, and then we unfairly blame the workers and their families for being here in the first place to meet our desire for cheap food."

Tonight, Iowa City area residents have the opportunity to hear firsthand how, in the 16 months since the raid, Grey and Devlin think the situation has evolved both in Postville and on the national level. In a phone interview Monday, Grey said that, although Postville is still struggling to recover, there have been some subtle but important improvements that suggest the federal government has learned some lessons from Postville. Immigration officers often are using many options other than large-scale raids, and, even when when they do pick up large numbers of undocumented workers, they are not charging nearly as many with felony violations before beginning deportation proceedings

Joined by their co-author -- former Postville City Councilor Aaron Goldsmith -- Grey and Devlin are scheduled to read from their new book, "Postville, U.S.A.: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America," at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books. Grey, however, says that the trio hasn't spent much time "reading" from the book in the other events they've been holding around the state. Instead, after some introductory remarks from each of the authors, they begin taking questions from the audience, which easily fills the time.

"They always want an update on what is happening in the town," Grey said. "They always want to know what is happening with the Guatemalans. ... And they want to know about the trial (of the former plant manager Sholom Rubashkin)."

Grey said he was glad the book came out after the first year anniversary so that he had "a lot of good data about the crime rates" and other indicators of how Postville is recovering, but he hopes to put out a second edition of the book next year that also will include more information about Rubashkin, who faces a host of immigration-related and fraud charges and who recently had his federal trial moved from Iowa to Sioux Falls, S.D.

Nearly "all the other managers and employees have either fled the country or pleaded guilty," Grey said. "So it's going to be a fascinating case."

Postville's recovery, of course, is happening independently of whatever twists and turns take place in Rubashkin's trial. That's why "Postville, U.S.A." provides such a timely reminder of much work needs to be done.

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