Yesterday was the first anniversary of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.
When visiting Postville last month, I met Violeta Aleman, a pastoral associate at St. Bridget Parish there. “Pastoral associate” may not be the correct term; it seems that her job is primarily that of a social services counselor for the steady stream of immigrant residents who come to the doors of the parish center. Her office has toys for the children, diapers for the babies, and many chairs for the women who visit.
Aleman understands what they’ve been through. She, too, was arrested in the raid, even though she wasn’t an Agriprocessors employee. She worked for a Chicago company that bought meat from Agriprocessors; after a bad shipment was delivered, Aleman was hired to do quality control inside the plant. She was arrested even though she is an American citizen. “They just took everybody,” she said.
In Waterloo, Iowa, where the arrestees were being processed, an ICE official instructed anyone who claimed U.S. citizenship to gather at a specific place. Aleman said she was the only one to do so. ICE personnel were skeptical because of her Spanish accent. All she had with her was a valid driver’s license — her passport was at her home, but she could not reach her husband to bring it to her — but ICE accepted the driver’s license as sufficient proof of citizenship.
Aleman was free but hardly unencumbered. She had to walk a gauntlet of sorts past others Agriprocessors detainees kneeling on the floor on either side of her. She remembers that she tried to be brave in telling others to be brave. “They would raise their heads to look at me,” she said, her voice catching at the memory. “I would tell them,’I’ll see you again,’ even though I knew I would never see them again.”
Born in Mexico, Aleman became a U.S. citizen in 1995. Her father, an agricultural worker who regularly crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, found some 25 years ago that “crossing was not as easy as it used to be,” she said. It turned out he was eligible for an amnesty program begun in 1986. Although they were cleared for U.S. citizenship in 1990, Aleman said, it took five years to save the money required to start a new life in a new country.
Aleman said she was respected in the Agriprocessors plant because, for one thing, she was not a plant manager who could punish workers for infractions real or imagined. Aleman also had a listening ear.
That quality comes in handy at St. Bridget as immigrants come to the parish house seeking help with rent, utilities and paperwork as, even one year later, some women’s cases have not yet been heard. They wear ankle bracelets with a GPS monitoring device in lieu of forcing them to return to their country of birth and be separated from their U.S. citizen children. But with the ankle bracelet attached, they cannot work.