Lessons from Postville: How an Immigration Raid Changed a Small Town and Its Schools

In this Q & A written for Colorín Colorado, ESL coordinator Joy Minikwu describes what students, families, and staff experienced during and after a massive immigration raid in the small town of Postville, Iowa in 2008. She also suggests steps that schools can take to prepare for immigration enforcement activity in their community.

Special thanks also to the following contributors: Chad Wahls (Elementary Principal at the time of the raid); Adriana Vazquez (School translator/Migrant Coordinator); and Meca Loftsgard (ELL teacher). This article was edited by Colorín Colorado Manager Lydia Breiseth.

Photo credit: Students in Miss Lana's ESL class, Postville. Used with permission from Iowa Public Radio and Sandhya Dirks.

On the road to Postville, in Northeast Iowa. Used with permission from Iowa Public Radio and Sandhya Dirks.

Postville is a town of 2200 people in northeastern Iowa, about 90 miles north of Cedar Rapids. Over the past two decades, the demographics of the town have changed significantly with the arrival of numerous Hispanic families, mainly from Mexico and Guatemala, and a large Hasidic Jewish population.  In more recent years, the town has continued to diversify with the arrival of Somali refugees and unaccompanied minors from Guatemala. 

The town made national headlines in 2008 when a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid of a kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 immigrant workers and the indictment of several employees and managers based on the plant's management and labor practices.  It was, at the time, the largest workplace immigration raid of its kind in history.

The schools in Postville played a crucial role in caring for and supporting the children affected by the raid. Many children had parents or siblings who were arrested.  Joy Minikwu is the ESL coordinator for the district. In this Q & A written for Colorín Colorado, she describes what the students, families, and staff experienced during and after the raid and the raid's long-term impact on the community. She also suggests steps that schools can take to prepare for immigration enforcement activity in their community.

Q & A with Joy Minikwu

Tell us about Postville, Iowa and its changing demographics over recent years.

Taste of Mexico Restaurant, Postville. Used with permission from Iowa Public Radio and Sandhya Dirks.

Many years ago, the schools in Postville, a rural town, were home to a 100% Caucasian population. The demographics really started changing a few decades ago when a Jewish Kosher plant was opened in the community. As the plant grew, Hasidic Jewish, Mexican, Guatemalan, and Eastern European families moved to town; eventually the Eastern European population declined and the Guatemalan population increased.

About five years ago, Postville started receiving the first Somali families. The Somali people come from various countries and backgrounds, all of them being refugees. The majority of our Somali population comes from Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Algeria and Djibouti. The Somali population has grown extensively over the past 2-3 years as the Hispanic population is also rising. Other cultures are also represented in Postville in smaller numbers from countries such as from Afghanistan and the Philippines.

Describe the events of the May 2008 immigration raid.

The school had no warning the immigration raid was going to happen. It started earlier in the morning and the school had no idea what was happening until students started receiving phone calls during school. Cell phones started ringing and then we heard helicopters. Kids starting panicking as they heard the helicopters and started receiving phone calls from family members with instructions as to what they should do. 

The school was put on lockdown. The principals decided to keep students at the school until a parent or family member came to get them and take them home. There was a sign-out sheet the adults had to sign before taking a student so the school had record of whom each student was going home with.

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It was an extremely nerve-wracking time for everyone: students, staff, and families. Some families went into hiding. They hid in neighbors' or friends' houses. Some parents couldn't be found. The students who did not have anyone come pick them up were bused to the community's Catholic church. The church was set up as a "safe zone" for anyone who had nowhere to go or who couldn't find family members. Volunteers from the community and surrounding communities brought food, blankets, and entertainment for the children. It was a scene that seemed surreal.

The community and surrounding communities really stepped up to support these families. Along with the Catholic church providing security for the families, a neighboring college brought in translators to help sort through the chaos. A few lawyers also came as volunteers to help with legal advice and processes during this scary time. They set up tables and gave counsel to families and individuals.

Almost 400 people were arrested in the raid. This is a significant number, especially in such a small town like Postville. Over 330 of these arrested individuals were convicted. There were 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, 4 Ukrainians and 2 Israelis. The effect of this on the families of Postville was huge and therefore the effect on the school was also incredible.

How did the district respond in the immediate hours and days following the raid?  What were the primary concerns in terms of students and young children?

On the day of the raid, the principal decided to keep students at school until a parent or relative came to get them. They had to sign the students out. Any students who weren't picked up were either taken to see if anyone was home by a teacher or staff member and/or taken to the local church to stay until further arrangements could be made. Many teachers and community member volunteered to stay with students at the church and/or bring supplies and help serve the people who took refuge there.

In the days that followed the actual raid, many staff members, friends, and community members helped get kids to school. If students did not come those days that followed, the school always called to assure each student was somewhere safe. The school was very flexible with attendance in the weeks that followed. Many students and families did not feel safe leaving their homes, or the place they were staying and wanted to stay close together. The students who did come to school were struggling with anxiety and fear of what was to come, or fear that ICE would return again.

The school provided counseling services for students who were distressed and even students who were not directly affected by the raid. Non-immigrant students were crying and fearful for their friends; they also felt the stress and seriousness of the situation. Teachers communicated openly with counselors to ensure students were given the opportunity to talk with a professional.

It was agreed that keeping a normal routine was the most beneficial strategy to help students through this event, so staff tried to stick to as normal of a schedule as possible. This helped communicate that even though life outside of school may be unknown and chaotic, school was a safe place to be.

Teachers had to be sensitive to student needs as students were processing many different feelings throughout the day. Teachers debriefed in their classrooms with kids so students could better understand the situation, be able to communicate feelings and do away with certain misconceptions they may have had. Students of all backgrounds had worries and questions they would voice. The staff and administration met and collaborated together to discern how to appropriately answer questions and be a support for the students so that all students were getting a consistent message from the staff.

It was agreed that keeping a normal routine was the most beneficial strategy to help students through this event, so staff tried to stick to as normal of a schedule as possible. This helped communicate that even though life outside of school may be unknown and chaotic, school was a safe place to be. Staff and community members also continued visiting students and families at the church to show continued support and comfort.

How did you support children separated from their families?

This was a very scary time for the children who were separated from their families. We found certain aspects to provide comfort and security for these students:

  • Making sure the children were kept in a safe place: As described earlier, students were not released from the school until they were signed out by a family member at the school. For other children who were not picked up, they were taken to a local church as a safe place until further plans could be made.
  • Ensuring children went home with a trusted adult: There are a variety of methods in how to ensure this, but Postville quickly created a checkout system.

Kids just needed hugs and reassurance that they were taken care of and there was someone close who cared about them no matter what happened.

  • Providing comfort for the children: This was a very traumatic event and kids just needed hugs and reassurance that they were taken care of and there was someone close who cared about them no matter what happened.
  • Keeping the same routine as much as possible: The students' lives were full of chaos, so school was the only place that remained normal for them.
  • Providing support: Students didn't always have clothes, food, a home, a place to do homework, so it was part of our plan to provide the needed support for them. Collaborating with local churches and community members with what children's needs was very helpful in this area.

Can you describe the emotional aftermath of the raids on...

Students impacted by the raid

The emotional aftermath of the raid on the students who were directly impacted by the raid was very significant. Some students disappeared and then reappeared days/weeks/months later. Other students moved to a different location altogether. The students who did attend school were visually nervous and scared. Many of them were very emotional, had breakdowns, and cried frequently. Common noises, such as lawn mowers or helicopters, made students jumpy or have an emotional reaction. Many families or parts of families were in jail and deported. So many students were stuck in limbo. There were students who were U.S. citizens, but their parents were not. They could not go with the parent who was deported. There were missing parents who went into hiding. The fear in these students was palpable. Students to this day still talk about the raid and its effects.

Other students and classmates

The raid also had a major impact on other students and families in the school...Some lost friends and never saw them again.

The raid not only affected students whose families were directly impacted by the raid, but it also had a major impact on other students and families in the school. These students and families saw the fear and extremely strong emotions in their fellow classmates. They experienced the panic and chaos that happened around them. It was a very scary and emotional situation for anyone connected. Some lost friends and never saw them again. They feared for their friends and their families. At that point, they realized the realities and differences their friends had to live through.

Staff and administration

The staff and administration were highly affected as well. They had to be so strong and calm for their students as they watched the fear and emotional breakdowns happen right in front of them, and many felt helpless in the situation. The staff and administration at Postville is extremely committed to their students. They also experienced fear for these families and helplessly had to watch as families were ripped apart. They are the ones who were faced with the aftermath of the raid every day and had to make split decisions about how to best help these students and families. They worked all day to teach and comfort these students in school and many of them then went to churches and homes to support them even further.

Everyone was very emotionally and physically drained in the weeks following the raid, but they continued doing what was best for kids. At times they felt frustrated from the confusion and chaos the raid caused. Families were coming and going, and there was an evident lack of focus within classrooms. Many experienced anger at the situation – anger that their students had to go through this traumatic experience as they saw how affected kids truly were. 

The community

The wider community was also affected. Business decreased as families left and/or were in hiding. Many families experienced bankruptcies due to not being able to work. Many were arrested and then required to wear ankle bracelets until their next court date, which could be an extremely long wait with no one in the household able to work and provide for the family. Houses were left vacant. A tangible feeling of fear stayed in the town for months after. Postville also was exposed to a lot of negative publicity. It was given even more of a negative stereotype from all of the media coverage.

What were the long-term impacts of the raid on the families, school, and community?

There were many long-term impacts of the raid. There was the obvious loss of students and loss of business for the community. There was a decrease in real estate. The community lost its safe feeling for many people, even those indirectly affected by the raid. There was a lot of distrust formed of the government, or anyone who represented the government, including authority figures. There was more distrust on the part of Latinos towards the rest of the community in general. Many people were more on-edge. Even families who were not arrested and detained became more aware of the reality that deportation was a strong possibility. The lack of income in so many homes had a huge impact on family lives and survival.

However, as in all negative situations, there is always a positive aspect. The raid brought the community of Postville together as well as other communities. People were made aware of the horrible work conditions and situation going on in Postville that had not been brought to light prior to the raid. It lessened the race gap that had been in Postville. People were much more accepting of the culturally diverse families, realizing the effects of the raid and what it did to families.

What was the unique role that older siblings (often in middle or high school) had in this situation?

The majority of older siblings in the families who were directly affected by the raid were forced to step into a parental role, even though they were also struggling with the emotional impact of the situation. They were forced to mature quickly and became both the physical and emotional caregivers for their siblings. They were left to explain to younger siblings the situation and what their futures would look like even though they were just as scared. It was amazing to see these siblings not question their role, but step up and support their younger siblings. (Editor's note: Mary Ann Zehr of Education Week reported that on the day of the raid, administrators met with students at the high school to talk about caring for their younger siblings.)

What steps can schools have in place to prepare for possible raids and/or deportations regarding child care, communication, and coordination with community members? 

Nothing really prepares anyone for a traumatic experience such as a raid. However, there are a few steps that can help in case a situation such as a raid and/or deportation do occur.

Keep Emergency Contacts Updated

  • Make sure family emergency contacts are kept as up-to-date and accurate as possible.
  • Ask for more than one emergency contact.
  • Strongly encourage families to communicate with the school anytime they have a new address or a change of phone numbers.

Emergency contacts

Emergency contacts were not always accurate, making it hard to contact family during the emergency. This adds to the stress of an already stressful situation.

  • Make sure family emergency contacts are kept as up-to-date and accurate as possible, even though it can be very hard to do with different languages, cultural backgrounds, and changing telephone numbers. 
  • Ask for more than one emergency contact can be helpful to help with this frustration.
  • Strongly encourage families to communicate with the school anytime they have a new address or a change of phone numbers.

Community partnerships

  • A second strategy that may help in being prepared for an emergency situation is to establish partnerships and connections with local houses of worship and businesses in the community.
  • Communicate with them about possibilities of incidences that could occur and work together to form a plan in case a situation presents itself.

Communication with families

  • Schools can encourage families to have a plan in case a situation such as a raid were to occur and to talk with their children about what they should do and where they should go.

How can schools address this intense emotional impact on students, particularly those separated from families?

Schools can help address the intense emotional impact on students by providing the following:

  • Offering counseling services for both students and staff, and being sensitive to those who do not directly reach out for counseling but may need some encouragement to participate in it.
  • Being sensitive and personal as a staff and not allowing the emotional strain to affect how students are treated.
  • Remembering that kids are still the same students and they need even more support during this stressful time.
  • Being more concerned with their social/emotional needs than academics. School is important, but the emotional health of students in this type of situation outweighs the academic performance expected. Give them time.
  • Being sure students are safe and have somewhere to go after school. Don't forget to continue this support even after the first few days. People not directly affected by the raid may continue living life as usual, but these families have to live with the consequences day in and day out for a very long time.

How have schools handled transfer or requests of school records by schools in home countries if children are deported back?

At Postville, records are usually transferred from the home country here (if available), not the other way around. We have never received any requests for records from an international school. Parents may ask for verification or records at times, which we have then given them directly to the parents.

What advice do you have on how small communities can welcome new families and make connections with long-time residents?

One piece of advice is to create opportunities for community members, teachers, and families to experience the new and different cultures. It is very important to educate people about cultures so people are not offended and or turned off by the differences they may not understand. Secondly, it is helpful to provide English and acculturation classes for the people coming from other cultures. This allows people to be able to understand our culture faster and become more involved in positive ways in the community.

Celebrating differences and showing those positive aspects bring people with differences together.

Lastly, it is extremely important to encourage open-mindedness and to educate students and community members about positive aspects of the cultures within the community. Celebrating differences and showing those positive aspects bring people with differences together. Postville has a diversity celebration biannually, allowing student groups and families to present dances, poems, presentations, fashion shows and food from their cultures.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

The raid was a very challenging event to go through. In all challenges, there are always positives if you look hard enough. Communities came together to help the people who needed extra support. Our school district has been fortunate to continue to have the opportunity to get to know all the diverse cultures that are here and be able to work with them. We are blessed with an open-minded staff who are very accepting of the students and their backgrounds.

About the Author

Joy Minikwu was born and raised in Postville, Iowa. She is the K-12 ELL Instructional Coach for the Postville School District. She has been a teacher for 10 years and has worked as a classroom teacher, Spanish teacher, reading specialist, and ELL specialist, teaching in Missouri and Florida before returning to Postville. She has a Master's Degree in Education with a focus in K-12 ELL Instruction.

References

Capps, R., Castaneda, R.M., Chaudry, A., & Santos, R. (2007). Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America's Children. Urban Institute & National Council of La Raza. http://www.urban.org/research/publication/paying-price-impact-immigration-raids-americas-children

Dirks, Sandhya. (2013). Iowa Public Radio. "Diversity in Iowa Schools: It's a Small World After All." Photos used with permission. Retrieved from: http://iowapublicradio.org/post/diversity-iowa-schools-its-small-world-after-all#stream/0

Hamann, E. T., & Reeves, J. (2012). ICE Raids, Children, Media and Making Sense of Latino Newcomers in Flyover Country. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 43(1): 24-40http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/teachlearnfacpub/127 

Zehr, Mary Ann. (2008). Education Week. "Iowa School District Left Coping With Immigration Raid's Impact.": http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/05/21/38immig.h27.html?qs=postville,+ia

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