Saint Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints. Born to Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict who had been baptized by Saint Patrick, Bridget went on to found an important monastery in Kildare or Cill-dara, the “church of the oak.” Her symbol is the Saint Brigid’s cross, representative of a time when she wove some reeds together to form a cross in the house of a dying peasant in order to teach him the Gospel story.
Driving into Postville, Iowa, on Saint Patrick’s Day, I was immediately struck by the ghost-town feel of the western half of this town that used to boast a population of 2,000. Dozens of chicken-coop semi-trucks were parked outside the abandoned Agriprocessor’s slaughterhouse. Hundreds of coops sat outside, vacant, waiting. A piece of heavy machinery was driving through the property, disposing with some of the tons of junk littered around the lot. With the whine of its engine, it seems to be disposing with the evidence of what happened here last May.
On this dusty day, one can hardly imagine the cacophony of sounds here before the ICE raid on May 12, 2008. Chickens squawking, machines whirring, blades thudding, trucks chugging, people shouting to be heard over the din of machinery. Spanish mixed with Yiddish mixed with Arabic numerals preceded by $ signs.
In this abandoned slaughterhouse site, though, it is all too easy to imagine the eerie silence when the machines stopped, when 900 ICE agents increased the town’s population by 40%, when 389 immigrants were detained and interned in a cattle barn, when the chickens lived to squawk some more and this peaceful Iowa town screeched to a halt. Only five immigrant workers had prior criminal records, but all were sentenced with working under false documents. (Bobo, Kim. Religious Leaders Protest Postville Raid) The public defenders, the translators, the immigration judge – everyone had been told to keep this date open on their calendars, ensuring a speedy process where nearly all the immigrants from Central America pled guilty to charges they didn’t understand in hopes of reduced sentences. Professional interpreter Camayd-Freixas was so appalled that he published his eyewitness account with the New York Times.
Just down the street, I sit with Father Ouderkirk for a half-hour. He is the father of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church here in Postville, a safe haven for many of the terrorized families still remaining after that fateful day in May. “You should have been here earlier,” this once-retired priest tells me. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this turns into the best restaurant in town.'” Taking his job seriously as pastor to this reeling community, Ouderkirk serves Latino food to needy families on these days, in addition to working to provide housing funds for the scores of families who lost dads, moms, and children in this raid. “You wouldn’t believe how much we spend each month, trying to keep a roof over their heads.”
Some of the women he serves at St. Bridget’s have been wearing an ankle bracelet for 10 months. Some of the children haven’t seen or heard from their fathers for almost a year. Many of the mothers are torn between returning to Central America to reunite with their husbands or staying here so their citizen children can receive a good education. These families are facing excruciatingly difficult choices, choices one should never have to make. Father Ouderkirk wipes with his handkerchief and tells me what we really need is comprehensive immigration reform.
As I leave Postville on Tuesday, the day after the mayor announced his resignation, the boarded-up windows and streams of For-Sale signs are a constant reminder that this town was dealt a devastating blow last May. With a new administration and new DHS Secretary Napolitano, many are hopeful that the days of Postville and Oxford, Mississippi raids are over. It is not enough, though, to merely hope that this administration will make the hard choices it must to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform wins out over high-profile, low-impact raids such as this. We must make it very clear that criminalizing immigrant families is useless and inhumane, while opportunistic employers who lure workers under false pretenses (and, as here, actually provide the false identification documents to their unknowing workers) is the appropriate focus of workplace reform. We must remind Obama that, if he is really attempting to out-do the New Deal, he should learn from FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins who shut down the Department of Labor division that was then carrying out workplace raids (Bobo, Kim). We must encourage Napolitano to ensure that such Sinclair-like Jungle conditions never occur again, where immigrants are both victimized and criminalized. We must urge our judicial department to reexamine current immigration policies which allow such a rushed, clandestine mockery of Due Process.
Father Ouderkirk will be traveling to my home in Rochester on April 2, to give a presentation at Pax Christi Catholic Church. I encourage anyone and everyone to come and hear this man of faith who is earnestly working for immigration reform. For all those afar, it is vital that we do not forget such tragedies as Postville. We must stare at such instances with unblinking eyes and learn from them. Please urge our administration to do the same.