Members of the Postville community begged a visiting congressional delegation to do whatever they can to stop federal immigration raids, saying that a recent enforcement effort here had scarred this modest city and torn families apart.
"Please do not let this happen again, do not let ICE come back," said Sister Mary McCauley with Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials. "If Postville was an example, I think it was given."
Three members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus listened on Saturday to dozens of accounts of how the May raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville has affected the community. The raid at Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, resulted in nearly 400 arrests, the largest enforcement effort of its type in U.S. history.
Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., Albio Sires, D-N.J., and Joe Baca, D-Calif., heard three hours of often emotional testimony. Women whose husbands are being detained talked about their longing to be reunited, underage workers detailed deplorable working conditions and city and religious officials lamented the impact on the community.
The speakers on Saturday alternated between sharp criticism of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security for launching what they termed an inhumane raid and at their former employer, Agriprocessors, which they said took advantage of workers and allowed unsafe conditions that drew outside attention. Many said they were equally culpable for the current situation.
By the end, Gutierrez said he had heard enough. The fallout from the Agriprocessors raid accomplished nothing but showing the folly of large-scale immigration raids, he said.
"This is wrong," he said. "We've taken men and women who want to work and made felons out of them."
A phone message left with Immigrations Customs Enforcement was not immediately returned.
Among those who spoke on Saturday was Noel Castillo Ordonez. The shy-looking 17-year-old wore a black baseball cap with a bald eagle and an American flag. He explained to an audience of 100 or so why he came to Postville from his native Guatemala.
"I needed money for my family, because I could not help them," he said in Spanish.
Another teen, Gilda Yolanda Ordonez Lopez, openly wept as she described being forced to work shifts as long as 12 hours with no overtime pay.
"They asked me how old I was, and I told them the truth," said Lopez, 17.
"Your were living like a woman, but you were just a girl?" he asked.
"There were others younger than me," Lopez replied.