POSTVILLE, Iowa _ Scores of Somali immigrants are taking jobs at the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant, replacing Hispanic workers arrested in a huge immigration raid and forcing a remote Iowa town to make another cultural shift.
Before the May 12 raid at Agriprocessors, hundreds of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants maintained a vibrant community in little Postville, a largely white community of 2,200 people in far northeast Iowa.
Now the stoops and haunts once occupied by Hispanics are being filled by about 150 Somali men.
They’re people such as Aydurus Farah, a 21-year-old who immigrated from Somalia in 2004. After landing in Minneapolis and learning English, he set out for work in meatpacking plants to make money for his family back home in Somalia.
He planned to begin work at Agriprocessors this week, drawn to Postville by the promised wages.
“They said over there they pay like 13 dollars an hour, very good money,” Farah said, as he stood outside Sabor Latino, a popular Mexican restaurant.
After spending a few days in town, he said he also appreciates the city’s small-town charms.
“I did not like Minneapolis — too many people, too many cars,” he said. “I like small towns. I am small town guy, so this is nice place. Maybe I can raise family here.“
The influx of Somalis has been met with wide eyes in a community still bewildered by the Agriprocessors raid.
Federal agents arrested 389 people, mostly Guatemalans and Mexicans who had established roots and become part of the community.
The new immigrants have “raised some eyebrows, which is pretty normal when you get somebody different in town,” said Postville Mayor Robert Penrod.
“That said, as far as I know they haven’t caused a whole lot of problems. They’ve been keeping to themselves,” he said.
Farah and others who have arrived in Postville said the Somali community in Minneapolis and elsewhere is abuzz with talk of well-paying meatpacking jobs at Agriprocessors.
That runs counter to stories told by workers at the plant who described pay before the raid as $10 an hour or lower with no extra for overtime. Some also claimed the plant hired underage employees and forced its workers to endure unsafe conditions.
Juda Engelmayer, a spokesman for Agriprocessors, said the company wouldn’t comment on pay or staffing issues.
Regardless of previous claims, Somali workers such as Hassam Jilmale said he left work at a Tyson plant in Nebraska because he heard he could make more money with better conditions at Agriprocessors.
The 26-year-old said he was starting at the plant on Tuesday.
“We make much more money here,” he said. “At the other place, they did not like Somalis. They were no good. So far this is good. It’s nice here.“
Abdinasir Abib said he had already started at the plant and was going through training. He thought he was being treated well and likes his work.
“It’s hard work, but it’s good, they’re fair and I like it,” the 18-year-old said.
Farah and Abib live with two others in a cramped apartment on Postville’s main street — just above a Latino bakery and Sabor Latino, and down the street from a Hispanic clothing store and a Guatemalan restaurant.
Many of the Somalis who have come to Postville have roots in Minneapolis, one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Somali immigrants.
Hassan Mohamud, a Somali native who works as a legal advocate at The Legal Aid Society in Minneapolis, said the young men leave because low-skilled factory jobs are scarce in the Twin Cities and they need to provide for their families.
“It is almost always financial reasons,” he said. “Here there are less jobs and the workers cannot cover their financial needs. So they leave so that they can give back … and they can get a job that doesn’t require skills and languages.“
No new businesses or mosques have opened in Postville to support the new community, and residents said they are wary about adjusting to another foreign culture even as the outcry over the May raid lingers.
On Sunday, about 1,000 people, including many Postville residents, marched through the city’s streets to protest the immigration raid and Agriprocessors’ treatment of employees.
With chants of “End the raids!” and “Si se puede!” — or “Yes, we can!” — hundreds of immigration protesters brought a national debate to Postville.
Busloads of protesters from the Twin Cities and Chicago as well as hundreds of others from around the region rallied as residents sat on their lawns and gaped.
With chants of “End the raids!” and “Si se puede!” — or “Yes, we can!” — hundreds of immigration protesters brought a national debate to this isolated corner of northeastern Iowa. The protests came in response to a May raid at the Agriprocessors Inc. meatpacking plant, the largest enforcement effort in U.S. history.
Busloads of protesters from the Twin Cities and Chicago as well as hundreds of others from around the region rallied as residents sat on their lawns and gaped. Organizers said there were more than 1,000 people participating.
Getzel Rubashkin, an Agriprocessors employee and a member of the family that owns it, said it was unfair to blame his family and Agriprocessors for the raid and theorized that unspecified competitors and enemies of the plant were behind the enforcement action.