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Page last updated at 14:16 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 15:16 UK

US factory raid splits small town

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A tour of Postville

A raid that caught nearly 400 illegal immigrants working in an Iowa meat packing plant has put a small town at the centre of one of America's most divisive issues, as the BBC's Dumeetha Luthra discovered.

As you enter Postville, Iowa, it could be a poster ad for many small towns across mid-America with its clipped lawns, US flags, and kids cycling down the street.

A roadside sign proudly welcomes you to the "Hometown to the World".

But on 12 May those words were turned on their head when 389 illegal immigrants were arrested while working at Agriprocessors, a kosher meat packing plant.

It was the biggest such raid the US had ever conducted, and it thrust Postville centre-stage to become a microcosm of the illegal immigration debate. Almost three months on, the small town is in turmoil.

"It's worse now than when the raids took place," said Father Ouderkirk, who came out of retirement as parish priest to help in the aftermath.

Fake papers

Agriprocessors is the biggest employer in the area and a huge section of the plant's 900 workforce was arrested.

Most had fake identity papers and are now serving five-month prison sentences before being deported.

About 40 are still awaiting court appearances and have been allowed to return to care for their children - with black electronic bracelets strapped to their ankle. Father Ouderkirk says they now have to rely on handouts.

"They have the bracelets. They can't work and they have no money," he says.

"They can't leave the town, they can't go, they can't stay. So who's going to help them?"

Sylvia Ruiz and her family are some of those depending on the church's help.

Wendy Ruiz on going to Postville

She came from Guatemala five years ago and got a job at the plant. Since May she has been wearing the bracelet and is not allowed to work. Her daughter Wendy worries about the future.

"I feel so sad and scared. My dream was to attend college and graduate," she says.

"If my mum is arrested again, what will I do with my brother and sister?"

When challenged, she acknowledges that the family broke the law by coming to the US, but doesn't understand why the raids took place.

"I don't understand. I know we came illegally, but the country needs us, we do the jobs that no-one else wants to do."

And that is the issue. There are some 12 million illegal immigrants in the US. Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain have both talked about legalising those already in the country.

But it's a divisive issue, as a recent protest at Postville clearly demonstrated.

Protests in Postville

The demonstration of more than 1,000 people snaked through the town's streets. People from across the country had come to march with local residents against the raids and to call for reform.

For a moment, tension flared as they came head to head with a counter-protest of about 150 people supporting the raids.

Local electrician Gary Hooper was one of them. Wearing his naval uniform, he said he had fought in Vietnam and was ready to fight along the Mexican border.

"I don't care if they're nice people, they're here illegally. They need to be removed," he said.

Local man Stan Looney is not sure where the blame lies

Perhaps a more representative view of Postville's general reaction to the raid is mechanic Stan Looney. He's a dab hand at fixing a flat tyre and has lived in the town all his life.

"Both sides have a point. I don't know who is right or wrong, but I do know it didn't help our town," he says.

Certainly, the economic and emotional impact has been immense. Business has suffered, some stores are struggling to stay open.

Postville's diverse population of just over 2,000 is splintered.

Some are angry at Agriprocessors' owners. But the company is also the town's source of prosperity and if it fails, so too does the town.

In a statement issued after the raid in May, the company said that it took US immigration laws seriously.

"We co-operated with the government in the enforcement action. We intend to continue to co-operate with the government in its investigation. Agriprocessors will also inquire further into the circumstances that led to these events," it said.

Reform

In another development, Iowa labour officials say they have discovered 57 under-age workers at the plant.

Dave Neil, the state's labour commissioner, said he was recommending that that the attorney general's office "prosecute these violations to the fullest extent of the law".

Statement from Agriprocessors

Agriprocessors reject this, and say they have co-operated with state officials throughout the labour investigation.

"Agri(processors) categorically denies the suggestion that it knowingly hired or retained minors as employees," a company spokesman said.

There have also been questions about the prosecution of the immigrants. A leading civil rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the US attorney's office put pressure on workers to plead guilty.

But officials reject this and say the prosecutions were carried out fairly and constitutionally.

Matt Dummermuth, the US attorney for Iowa, denies allegations that the illegal immigrants were not given appropriate counsel as they were put through the process. He says he can't think about what has or has not been achieved, but simply what needs to be done.

"I'll leave that for others to opine on," he says. "We're focused on prosecuting cases here, not determining what the consequences as far as policy are."

The various strands of Postville's experience are still being untangled. Most agree that reform of the immigration system is needed. But in an election year, who would want to touch that topic?

If nothing else, Postville is a bleak reminder that there is no right answer.


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