POSTVILLE, Iowa — People fill the sidewalk outside the food pantry every Wednesday as downtown Postville’s businesses wake up and open their doors.
Since Agriprocessors, the town’s kosher meatpacking plant, declared bankruptcy in November, it’s about the only reason people fill downtown. A mix of longtime residents and Latino immigrants arrive to grab numbers to ensure they walk the aisles first when the pantry opens in the afternoon.
They grab valuable rations of cooking oil, sugar and soap that fly off the shelves, leaving less desirable fare for the rest — canned meats, fruits and vegetables.
“The line is so long even if you come early,” said Magdalena Toj, a former Agriprocessors worker who waited in the rain with her child last week.
But like the rest of Postville, Toj is tired. She is tired of waiting in line, tired of not working and most of all, tired of an uncertain future.
“When it’s sunny, raining or cold, you’re out here, because if you come later you don’t get anything good,” she said.
A year of uncertainty has taken its toll on the small town. Postville’s mayor resigned this spring in frustration and exhaustion. City leaders, churches and passionate volunteers have struggled to work together behind a unified vision for the future of Postville.
“I would have thought as we approached the one year anniversary we’d be a lot further along,” said Jeff Abbas, general manager of Postville’s community radio station.
Residents find themselves starting from scratch in their efforts to live up to Postville’s motto, “Hometown to the World.” They worked hard to build a comfortable, easy trust with neighbors who hailed from every corner of the globe, a community they saw go up in a cloud of federal agents and arrests a year ago.
“Trust is hard, especially when this community has been so challenged and shaken to its foundation,” said Maryn Olson, coordinator for the Postville Response Coalition. “There are so many unknowns. The emotional burden of waiting and not knowing is hard.”
Longtime residents said they have grown increasingly anxious watching the plant’s government-appointed executive struggle to find a buyer, which they hope will save the town’s once vibrant economy.
Immigrant workers caught in the raid remain stranded in legal limbo, awaiting moving court dates that never arrive.
Federal authorities grabbed less than half of the workers than they anticipated on May 12 last year, so many immigrants not caught in the raid remain in Postville living underground. Without jobs at the plant they can’t find work and don’t have the means to move on or even return to their home countries.
On a muggy morning after a spring thunderstorm, Carol Deering sat in her garage as three Guatemalans with three strollers meander up to her sale.
Some residents say the raid brought a much-needed cleansing of lawlessness at the plant, but most everyone questions the cost. Deering said she grows sad when she thinks of all the devastated lives since the raid.
“I think as you look around our town and you see all the empty houses and empty buildings downtown it’s sad. We had a nice community here,” she said.
The children gravitate towards a shiny bike helmet and slap it with their tiny hands. The mothers hold up T-shirts to their chests, keeping one eye on the kids.
Sylvia, 22, admitted since the raid an awful thought has crossed her mind: It would be easier if Alejandra, her 1-year-old daughter, was not with them.
A former Agriprocessors worker, Sylvia declined to give her last name because she immigrated illegally. Her husband has been in jail, presumably awaiting deportation, since March, when police near Vinton pulled over the car he was riding in.
“After the raid, all the doors shut to us,” she said.
The stakes are just as high for the hundreds of Jewish people still in Postville, said Aaron Goldsmith, a former city councilman. Jewish families bought homes, and rely on Jewish schools, grocery stores and a synagogue to maintain their lifestyle.
Jewish workers at Agriprocessors worked for months without pay, and took backbreaking jobs formerly filled by immigrant workers in a failed attempt to rescue the plant.
“To some degree, there’s an even deeper fear about the future. What is a ritual slaughterer going to do without a job at Agriprocessors? He can’t become an accountant or work at Walmart. He’s finished. He’ll pack up and leave,” he said.
Despite the struggles, the will to recover is strong. St. Bridget’s Catholic Church continues to work around the clock to help the community’s immigrants pay for food and rent. The city has teamed up with the Postville Recovery Coalition to offer a home rehabilitation project to clean up yards and homes uninhabited for most of the past year. The University of Iowa’s Institute of Public Affairs recently started working with town residents to develop a strategic long-term plan for Postville.
Amid all the recovery efforts, a feeling of treading water in a storm permeates everything.
Kim Schutte, a carpenter in Postville, fixed up a funeral home just east of downtown last week. Between trips to his car for supplies, he said he thinks about his future everyday. He tries not to imagine what many consider a doomsday scenario:
“If the plant closes and leaves, there’s going to be...I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Abbas, radio station manager, is one of Postville’s voices pushing for the town to imagine life after Agriprocessors. To whomever will listen, he broadcasts his vision of a publicly owned plant that processes specialty meats, everything from kosher to organic chicken.
Yet he admits even the best-laid plans will gather dust until Agriprocessors is sold or shut down.
“How can we move forward if we don’t know what we’re moving forward from?” Abbas said.