Some of what the NYT Reports: in the immediate aftermath of the raid, Candy Seibert and many local business owners struggled to stay afloat. Mexican-owned grocery and clothing stores shut down, along with Restaurante Rinconcito Guatemaltecoa. Business at Seibert’s laundromat and several other local shops dropped by at least 50 percent.
Down the street, Agri was collapsing, too. Most of the work force was in jail or had left town. In the best of circumstances, meatpacking is bloody, exhausting and dangerous work. It draws the desperate: undocumented immigrants, refugees with limited English skills and a smattering of U.S. citizens thin on luck. Agri’s conditions were worse than most. About 75 percent of its workers — some of them minors — were undocumented, and many earned only $6 to $7 an hour, often without overtime. Female workers reported being sexually assaulted by managers, and workplace accidents were not uncommon, including broken bones, eye injuries, hearing loss and grisly mishaps that resulted in amputations.
The raid itself did nothing to improve conditions. In subsequent days, one Iowa job agency, Labor Ready, provided 150 replacement employees for Agri, then pulled them out about a week later, complaining that the plant was unsafe. A group of Native Americans from Nebraska and students from Kyrgyzstan also quit shortly after starting. Mysterious ads — Agri officials denied placing them — appeared in newspapers and on telephone poles in Guatemala City, pitching meatpacking jobs for $8.50 an hour in Postville, “a technologically developed town with a friendly atmosphere, pretty green areas, public schools and family recreation areas.”
Then, in one of its most desperate moves, Agri recruited 170 people from the Micronesian island of Palau — whose status as a former U.S. protectorate means its citizens can work legally in the United States. In September 2008, the Palauans traveled 72 hours and 8,000 miles on planes and buses before arriving in Postville with little more than flip-flops and brightly colored shorts and tops.
Meanwhile, Agri hired other job agencies that recruited Somali refugees from Minnesota and bused in homeless people from Texas, with promises of a hiring bonus and a month of free housing. The once-quiet town entered its “inner-city, homeless phase,” Seibert said. The Postville police chief added more officers — the department was used to dealing with stray animals, locked cars and bar brawls — to the Friday and Saturday night shifts. Arrests went up during the fall and winter of 2008. Drug problems spiked. There was a double stabbing downtown.
In the midst of this upheaval, Sholom Rubashkin, the chief executive of Agri, was charged with providing funds for fake ID cards for workers; later, he was also charged with defrauding banks of millions of dollars. (He is serving a 27-year prison sentence for 86 counts of financial fraud, including money laundering and bank, mail and wire fraud. Other managers received prison sentences for bank fraud and helping immigrants get false work papers.) The same month Rubashkin was arrested, a bank began foreclosing on the plant, and the company suspended hundreds of employees without pay. Work at Agri slowed to a crawl. With few workers to slaughter the animals, hundreds of turkeys, stuck in cages on tractor-trailers outside the plant, began dying. The smell of decay seeped into the neighborhood.
Agri stopped paying its property taxes to Postville, and the town’s two biggest landlords — Seibert was not yet among them — folded shop, leaving behind thousands of dollars’ worth of unpaid water and heat bills, as well as hundreds of angry, out-of-work tenants.
Many of the laid-off workers fled immediately, including several from a house that Seibert showed me one afternoon. On the outside, paint peeled, and the porch sagged from rot. Several windows were cracked, and one was completely shattered. Inside, beer cans, cups and plastic bags littered the kitchen counters and floors. Upstairs, a toilet tank was cracked down the middle. Seibert — who ended up managing the building after the tenants left — guessed that either someone smashed the toilet or it froze when the heat was shut off. In a bedroom, a pair of flip-flops lay next to a bare mattress, as if its occupant had been too rushed to pack.