Immigrants Are Changing the Face of Rural America: One Town’s Story

A Somali woman, one of the newer residents of Postville, Iowa. Photo: Zoe Strauss for The New York Times.

In the last couple of decades, rural towns across the United States have seen an influx of immigrants from Latin America and other regions, many of them undocumented. They have filled jobs in factories or fields that are too low-paid, hazardous, backbreaking or dirty to attract native-born or legal immigrant workers. At the same time, they have helped revitalize economically depressed, isolated rural communities whose populations are aging and dwindling.

Tiny Postville, Iowa, is one such town. A meatpacking plant that opened in 1987 initially drew Russian and Ukrainian workers, followed by Mexicans and Guatemalans. There were some tensions, but by the mid-2000s everyone was getting along pretty well. New businesses opened to serve the workers, and local landlords had a ready supply of tenants.

One morning in May 2008, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the US Department of Homeland Security, descended on Postville without warning and raided the plant. They detained almost 400 workers, most of them Guatemalans, and sent them to prisons across the country before deporting them.

The story doesn’t end there. Sunday’s New York Times Magazine describes what happened to the town in the years after the raid (“Postville, Iowa, Is Up for Grabs,” by Maggie Jones, July 15, 2012).

Families of the detained workers fled. “Within weeks, roughly 1,000 Mexican and Guatemalan residents — about a third of the town — vanished. It was as if a natural disaster had swept through, leaving no physical evidence of destruction, just silence behind it.”

But instead of returning to some pre-immigration status quo ante, the town grew vastly more diverse and more transient as new groups were recruited to fill empty jobs at the plant: Native Americans, homeless people from Texas, students from Kyrgyzstan, people from the Micronesian island of Palau. Most didn’t last long at the problem-ridden factory. One group, though, mostly stayed: Somali refugees, relocating from Minneapolis. Now Somali women in hijabs shop at the Postville IGA alongside white Iowans and Latinos, who are starting to trickle back.

The Taste of Mexico restaurant on Lawler Street in Postville. Photo: Liz Goodwin.

But the legal immigrants who now work at the plant, which has new owners, tend to leave as soon as they find better work elsewhere. Some residents say the town hasn’t really recovered from the raid (“Years after Immigration Raid, Iowa Town Feels Poorer and Less Stable,” by Liz Goodwin, December 7, 2011).

This is a fascinating story, and one being repeated in many far-flung rural locales. There’s much to think about here. Who is at fault if jobs in meatpacking plants pay $6 to $7 an hour, too little to attract any but the most desperate and vulnerable workers? The undocumented workers who take the jobs? The factory owners who employ them? The consumers who want cheap chicken?

I don’t have answers to these questions. Changing the economic and political context to benefit both communities and immigrants will not be easy. But helping immigrants learn English is clearly an essential part of the picture. The New York Times article notes that the Guatemalan workers in Postville were easily exploited: “With no papers and scant education and English skills, few could walk away from even the lousiest jobs.”  Whatever their circumstances, being able to speak up for themselves in English gives immigrants an additional tool to defend their rights.

Marchers in Postville in July 2008 protest the raid on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant. Photo: Fight Back News.

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