POSTVILLE, Iowa — If there is an epicenter in the shifting, emotionally charged debate over U.S. immigration policy, it is here, amid some of the richest soil on Earth.
That alluvial black dirt nurtures corn, beef cattle, chickens and turkeys, which require massive slaughterhouses. And that in turn nurtures a lively trade in the illegal immigrants willing to work in them.
All that ended in Postville a year ago today, when two government helicopters and some 900 immigration agents descended on this town of 2,200 and rounded up nearly 400 illegal immigrants working at a nearby meatpacking plant.
Believed to be the second-largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history, it cost taxpayers $5.2 million, according to one estimate; it terrified workers and their families; and it left economic devastation in its wake.
"I am not angry at the people who do not want us here," said a weeping Nohemi Hurtado, who is from Mexico and earned $7.50 an hour cleaning the hair from beef carcasses at nearby Agriprocessors. "It is their country, but I just ask God that I can stay."
Hurtado and the others – mostly Guatemalans – were prosecuted for violating U.S. immigration laws, then scheduled for what the government now calls "removal."
"I am disturbed that local religious leaders in Postville seem to think it is immoral to arrest people who violated federal laws," said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that believes in limiting immigration.
Beck said he believed the detainees were being treated humanely despite claims from local religious leaders to the contrary.
While the raid answered the prayers of millions of Americans on the anti-immigration side of the debate, it fed the passions of millions of others who are lobbying for leniency toward undocumented workers.
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