A few days ago, while scrolling through my social media, I saw a post that caught my attention.
“History in the making/Haciendo Historia-First POSTVILLE child becomes a US Citizen! ¡Felicidades!”
The post included a picture of immigration attorney Sonia Parras and a beautiful young Latina proudly holding her citizenship certificate. Immediately, memories of the 2008 Postville raid came back to me.
How timely, I thought, just before the 2020 presidential election — an important reminder that we need to elect leaders who can prioritize comprehensive immigration reform, the human rights of asylum seekers at the southern border and change family separation policies. We need a leader who understands the economic impact raids have on our economy and in our communities.
May 12, 2008, was a typical spring day in Rosa Maria Perez’s home in the small town of Postville, Iowa. Waking up early to go to school, Rosa, 16, and her 12-year-old sister were in a hurry. After breakfast, her mom kissed them both as they headed out the door and said goodbye. What started as a normal day for these young girls quickly became a nightmare for Rosa and many other immigrant families in the Northeast Iowa community.
“I was in class and I heard the loud sound of helicopters, really loud, like they were flying very low,” said Rosa.
No one knew what was going on until one of her friends received a call on her cell phone from a family member letting her know Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was conducting a raid at the Agriprocessors Inc. kosher meatpacking plant.
More than 20% of students in Postville were Latino, and most of them had relatives working at the plant, creating panic among many of them, including Rosa. She quickly called her mom who worked at Agriprocessors. Luckily she worked the third shift, but unfortunately her 17-year-old brother was at the plant at the time of the raid.
“Many of us didn’t know what to do; we started crying and hid under the classroom tables,” Rosa recalled.
After school, volunteers directed students to St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, where many of their parents and other relatives found refuge. There were rumors of ICE agents knocking on doors to arrest people, leaving families nervous they were next. Those impacted by the raid gathered at the church where Rosa and her sister were finally reunited with their mother. Her mom was devastated not knowing what happened to her son who left for work early that morning.
“My mom was in shock, she kept crying and crying, but even with the fear of being arrested, her motherly instinct took over because she went to the plant to ask if they would let my brother go,” Rosa said.
Instead, her mother learned he was one of the first workers arrested and sent to the Waterloo detention center. There was nothing she could do.
Rosa spoke of the days at the church.
“Even though the church was big, it was filled with many families that were too afraid to go out on the streets. We stayed there for about three weeks. We slept on the floor and on the benches,” she said.
School buses picked up the kids to take them to school and then take them back to the church.
According to a 2018 Des Moines Register article centered on the 10-year anniversary of the raid, ICE agents detained 389 people that day. A federal search warrant found immigration officials filed 697 complaints about immigration violations at the plant spanning two years. Of the 389 detained, 306 people were criminally charged.
During this tragic time in Postville, the community heard the ugliness in some people. This was evident in the local newspaper comments: “They deserve it, they are taking our jobs” or “They need to go back to where they come from.”
On the other hand, others showed what the heart of this country is made of — compassionate individuals, beautiful souls dedicating their time and resources to help people in need.
One of those individuals was Sonia Parras, who dedicated nearly two years to provide legal assistance pro bono to these hardworking immigrants. Parras told me that after the 2006 Swift raid in Marshalltown, community members learned many lessons and decided to create a coalition of nonprofit organizations and volunteers to provide services to immigrants and train people on how to effectively respond in the event of another immigration raid.
“We all had different roles, and mine was to coordinate the legal response,” Parras said.
Once she was notified that a raid was in process in Postville, she mobilized her team and went there immediately with 150 G28 forms allowing Parras and her team to provide legal representation to the detainees.
While going through the list of those in custody, Parras discovered many were minors who were detained and held with adults. That is illegal. As she began to interview her first client and started asking questions, she became aware of the horrors taking place at the plant. Her clients told her how they suffered sexual abuse, rape, human rights violations, harassment, minors working for long periods of time and human trafficking, among other violations.
“That place was like a purgatory,” she said.
Her team was able to identify at least 30 minors among the detainees.
Among the minors was Rosa’s 17-year-old brother. Although Rosa was not among the detainees, she worked a summer at the plant when she was 14.
“I worked packing hot dogs and using knives. I used to work from 6 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m., and if you wanted to do overtime, they would let us stay until 9 p.m,, and we had 20 minutes to eat,” Rosa said.
Because of the child labor violations, Parras was able to help Rosa, her family and many other victims apply for a “U” visa. This is a specific U.S. non-immigrant visa set aside for victims of crimes. It includes their immediate family members who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse while in the U.S. Applicants of a U visa must also be willing to assist law enforcement officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.
A few months later, Rosa was granted the visa and eventually became a permanent resident. This year, she became a U.S. citizen.
Parras told me seeing her become a citizen — happy, safe and fulfilled — she couldn’t help but feel proud to see Rosa persevere after facing so many obstacles.
“We (the immigrant and Latino community) are under attack, and this administration is going after sanctuary cities, destroying the community, creating fear, and separating our families and is very important to be prepared,” Parras said. “This is everyone’s responsibility.”
I asked Rosa her thoughts on President Donald Trump commuting the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, chief executive officer of Agriprocessors, after serving only eight years. Rubashkin was charged with providing fake identification for the workers, and later convicted of defrauding banks of millions of dollars.
“I believe there’s justicia divina (divine justice) and he will respond to God one day,” Rosa said.
She was emotional during our interview. I believe those memories are difficult for her, but even after all the trauma, she decided to forgive the people that exploited her and her family. She’s grateful for the opportunities this country has given her and her family.
Now she’s a citizen, married with two children and working at a school. Rosa told me that now she owns a car. Back in Guatemala, she would never have dreamed of such a luxury.
By Claudia Thrane