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Postville Mayor: Recovery Could Take Years
Although Postville Mayor Robert Penrod believes his community is slowly working its way back to something akin to life the way it was before a May 12 federal immigration raid on Agriprocessors, a kosher meatpacking plant, he also freely admits that it is going to be a slow and perhaps painful process.
“Our community is pulling together, and our businesses are pulling together. We are just trying to get back to normal,” Penrod said during an interview with Iowa Independent this week. “We’re trying to get people back in [to the community] to work at Agriprocessors — family-oriented people. It’s a slow process, but I hope we are going down the right roads to meet that goal. We need to get families back in here. That’s our goal: to get families back here.”
Immediately following the raid, which was labeled by federal authorities as the largest single-site action ever taken in the nation’s history, the city of Postville estimated that more than 100 rental properties stood vacant. Penrod said he hasn’t heard new housing numbers and wasn’t sure if those estimates had gone up or down.
Gabay Menahem, president of the Postville real estate firm Gal Investments Ltd., declined an interview Wednesday, citing an overwhelming workload. His company, which owns 127 rental units in the community, reported a vacancy rate of 75 percent immediately following the raid and had to freeze loans in order to avoid bankruptcy.
“As far as exact counts go, we just don’t know,” Penrod said. “We’re still in the process of tallying up all of this stuff. These are tasks that just can’t be done overnight.”
In the wake of the raid, several businesses in the community, particularly those with direct ties to the Hispanic community, shuttered their doors. Although most remained closed that first week, they’ve since re-opened for business.
“They are back to their regular schedules again,” Penrod said. “[The raid and continuing federal presence in the community] just made everyone really nervous.”
Penrod, who is a full-time employee at a business in a neighboring community in addition to serving as Postville’s mayor, wasn’t in town on the morning of the raid. He also received no notice before Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swooped in on his town’s largest employer and took 389 people — 18 percent of the town’s total population — into federal custody on possible immigration violations.
“The day of the raid it was like a disaster because everything was just in chaos,” he said. “I felt that way at the time — that it was like a disaster area — but I don’t think I feel that way now. We are getting back to normal as much as we can. But the truth is that it’s definitely going to take months, if not a few years, to get everything back up to snuff again.”
The primary goal of the community, he said, is to entice “family-oriented” people to move back into the community. He said this was also a goal of Agriprocessors, a business that will fail without an adequate workforce.
“We know it is going to be a slow process,” Penrod said. “It took years to build to where we were and get these people here. So it’s going to take awhile to get them back.”
While there is no denying that Agriprocessors is a “substantial employer” for the community, Penrod isn’t willing to speculate right now on what will happen to Postville if the plant closes.
“It will hurt,” he said. “If something does happen, I guess we’ll pursue our options at that point.”
The day-to-day task for everyone involved is just to pick up the pieces and carry on. Part of that, according to Penrod, is maintaining what’s left of the town’s population.
“We’re trying to keep them here,” he said. “Some of these families have lived in Postville for a number of years. This is where they’ve had children, raised their families and had children going to school. They like this community, and it is basically a safe place to work in — which is a plus. We’ve got problems just like every other town with Hispanics and whites and whoever. But for the majority [of our population], the city is basically a safe place to work. You see people walking all the time, and I think if we had continual trouble-makers, you wouldn’t see people walking.
“Overall, it’s good to hear that [people like our community and want to stay here], because that’s what the community wants.”