AP, July 29, 2008
Scores of Somali immigrants are taking jobs at the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant, replacing Hispanic workers arrested in a huge immigration raid and forcing a remote Iowa town to make another cultural shift.
Before the May 12 raid at Agriprocessors, hundreds of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants maintained a vibrant community in Postville, a largely white community of 2,200 people in northeast Iowa.
Now the stoops and haunts once occupied by Hispanics are being filled by about 150 Somali men.
He said he also appreciates the city’s small-town charms.
“I did not like Minneapolis—too many people, too many cars,” he said. “I like small towns. I am small town guy, so this is nice place. Maybe I can raise family here.”
The influx of Somalis has been met with some surprise in a community still bewildered by the Agriprocessors raid, the largest raid of its kind in the United States. Federal agents arrested 389 people, mostly Guatemalans and Mexicans who had established roots and become part of the community.
It’s not the first cultural change in Postville. The slaughterhouse attracted eastern Europeans in the 1990s, including immigrants from Bosnia, Poland, Russia and former Soviet Republics. Hispanics became the majority in the last decade.
The result is that a town that barely covers two square miles is home to people from 24 nationalities speaking 17 languages.
That runs counter to stories told by workers at the plant who described pay before the raid as $10 an hour or lower with no extra for overtime. Some also claimed the plant hired underage employees and forced its workers to endure unsafe conditions.
Regardless of previous claims, Hassam Jilmale said he left work at a Tyson plant in Nebraska because he heard he could make more money with better conditions at Agriprocessors.
Many of the Somalis who have come to Postville are legal immigrants with roots in Minneapolis, which has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Somali immigrants.
Hassan Mohamud, a Somali native who works as a legal advocate at The Legal Aid Society in Minneapolis, said the young men leave because low-skilled factory jobs are scarce in the Twin Cities and they need to provide for their families.
No new businesses or mosques have opened in Postville to support the new community, but residents said they are leery about adjusting to another foreign culture even as the outcry over the May raid lingers.
The raid made Postville an unlikely flashpoint in the immigration debate. On Sunday, about 1,000 people, including many Postville residents, marched through the city’s streets to protest the immigration raid and Agriprocessors’ treatment of employees.
The new Somali residents seem fine, but he fears there is only so much upheaval the town can take.
“We’re just always adjusting and it’s scary, it’s hard,” he said. “We get all these new people and we don’t know who they are.”