Hundreds rally in Iowa for meatpacking plant workers

Postville march
Immigrant rights' supporters march through downtown Postville. The weekend rally raised more than $40,000 that will go to help workers, their families and the local church that's provided support.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

About 1,000 demonstrators marched through the usually quiet streets of Postville, to highlight flaws in the country's immigration laws.

Some of the workers who were arrested participated in the rally, including a group of women wearing electronic ankle bracelets to monitor their location.

Ankle monitor
One of the women detained in the May raid at the AgriProcessors kosher meatpacking plant sits on the stage with Jewish, Catholic and other community activists, wearing an ankle monitor, during the rally on July 27.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Dozens of police officers, firefighters and sheriff's deputies blocked intersections though the procession was peaceful. Most of the people on the street were members of Jewish, Catholic or worker rights' organizations.

They were in Postville, to support to the families of nearly 400 workers who were arrested in May. The workers were using false identification at AgriProcessors, the country's largest kosher meat-packing plant.

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Some of the demonstrators carried signs that read "No human being is illegal" and "Jews for justice."

Many workers joined the march, including some who face charges, and others who weren't involved in the raid and still work at the plant.

The midday rally took demonstrators near manicured residential lawns, past a kosher market and Mexican restaurant, and in front of City Hall.

Marching through Postville
Those who were in Postville, Iowa to support the former meatpacking plant workers caught up in the nation's largest immigration raid, marched through the small Iowa town to the plant.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

They chanted, "What do we want? The American Dream. When do we want it? Now."

But as marchers chanted along these tree-lined streets, many Postville residents huddled on their front steps and sat on lawn chairs unsure of what to make of the procession. Many said they never imagined their small farm town would become center-stage for such a polarizing issue.

Randi Martie says people around town have simply lost trust in one another since the raid. Long-term workers at the plant had become part of the community, but now there are hundreds of new workers and Martie says they may be behind recent crimes in town.

He talks about a recent stabbing as a sign of troubled times. Martie says he and his wife are now locking their doors, something they never thought of doing before.

"And I've heard of numerous other problems in town," he said. "People getting beat up, window peakers. It's changed dramatically."

Rally protesters
A supporter of legal immigration holds a signs that says, "No more illegal aliens and fugitives from justice. Go home!"
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

The main focus of the day's event was to call for improvements to worker conditions and immigration reform.

Halfway through the march, the crowd stood on a dirt road outside the gates of the AgriProcessor's plant. Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Minnetonka spoke to protestors as workers watched from behind the gates.

"The raids that took place here were an outrageous criminalizing of people who came to this community just to make a living," he said. "The treatment of those workers and those who have been deported is unconscionable."

The rally also drew about 100 counter-protestors, who had a very different message to send. They gathered along the city's main road, chanting "Go home now" and "No more illegals."

Officials with the plant didn't speak to the news media on Sunday, but Getzel Rubashkin, the grandson of company's owner, approached a group outside the gates.

Getzel Rubaskin
Getzel Rubashkin, grandson of Aaron Rubashkin, owner of the AgriProcessors meatpacking plant, speaks to reporters outside the worksite on July 27.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

"This company is not on the other side of any these people," Rubashkin said. "The company agrees wholeheartedly with, maybe not with the immigration politics, but everyone wants justice, not just the people that are marching on the outside. People that working in the inside want justice. They believe in justice. They live their lives trying to be just. It's an artificial argument. There's no argument here."

But despite what seemed to be widespread solidarity, workers and their families said the fear and uncertainty of what's to come still looms strongly on their minds.

Former plant worker Alejandro Bustamante stood outside the Catholic Church with his 14-month-old daughter, Jocelyn, in hand. He and his wife were both arrested during the raid and are waiting for deportation orders.

Bustamante was pleased to see so many strangers supporting the workers, but said many of his relatives and friends remain fearful of more raids.

Alejandro Bustamante
Alejandro Bustamante, 36, with his 14-month-old daughter Jocelyn. Bustamante was one of the nearly 400 workers detained in May at the AgriProcessors kosher meatpacking factory. He posted bond and is awaiting deportation orders. His wife, Noemi, also faces deportation orders and has worn an electronic ankle monitor since the raid.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

"We're worried wherever we go now," he said. "It already hit us hard once and now we know anything can happen here. But we don't want to go through another case like this again. We're not delinquents. We're workers and all we want is to progress."

It's unclear what the long-term effect of this rally will be or how long it'll take the small city to return to what life was like before the AgriProcessors raid.

This weekend's rally raise more than $40,000 that will go to help workers, their families and the local church that's provided support.

For their part, activists vow to continue helping this community and fighting for immigration and worker reform.