The immigration raid that became a play

Actors Pedro Bayon and Terry Hempleman take on the roles of slaughterhouse workers in the play Clandestino at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.
Photo couresty of Stephen Cartmell

Four years ago, immigration authorities raided a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. It was one of the largest single roundups in U.S. history, resulting in the arrest of nearly 400 undocumented workers.

That event is the focus of a new play at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis.

As a playwright, Cory Hinkle knows drama. When it comes to dramatic settings, he says you can't do much better than Postville.

"In this white bread Iowa town you have Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn walking up and down the street," said Hinkle, a co-writer of the play "Clandestino."

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"You have people from all over the world who have come to find work in America and have found their way to Postville, Iowa."

In 1987, a family of Hasidic Jews from New York opened the nation's largest kosher meat-processing plant in the tiny farming community of Postville. The effect of that operation is the focus "Clandestino" — Spanish for secret, undercover, clandestine.

"We're dealing with something real. It is a piece of documentary theater, but it has these theatrical touches," Hinkle said.

At the final rehearsal before opening night, cast members run through their lines — some in English, a few in Yiddish, others in Spanish. All are languages heard on the streets of Postville.

Actor Pedro Bayon describes his role as a a slaughterhouse worker from Guatemala.

"He is a family man, came to this country looking for a better life like a lot of immigrants do, He has a sick mother at home so he's trying to send some money. So that's what he does, works and provides.

Bayon's character represents the hundreds of Guatemalans, Mexicans and Eastern Europeans who found jobs at the kosher slaughterhouse. They arrived almost overnight, changing the demographic of the previously all-white, all-Christian community. For the locals, this instant multiculturalism took some getting used to. But eventually residents, new and old, found common ground.

Everything changed on May 12, 2008, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the processing plant. Undocumented workers, the vast majority of the employees, were arrested and deported. They weren't legally in the country, Hinkle said, but they were a large part of Postville's population.

"Nearly 400 illegals and their families suddenly are gone from the economy and the town. It's such a small town that it's a really high percentage. It's like 20-something percent," Hinkle said.

When the workers left, so did their money. Stores were forced to close. Houses went empty. The school system brought in grief counselors to help children cope with what had happened.

"Kids come to school and their fellow students are gone because they've gone away with their families," Hinkle said. "All these details really show the effect on a community and how interdependent we are."

The show's director, Jeremy Wilhelm, hopes "Clandestino" will allow audiences to see beyond the politics often associated with immigration.

"I want them to walk away just trying to tap into the humanity of this thing. There's a human cost to cheap meat production or cheap anything production," Wilhelm said. "We're trying to stay focused on those human stories.

The play is a way to take the story of Postville's immigration raid out of the news and put it on stage, where, says Wilhelm, it might feel more real.