Features

Catching a wave

"Catching a wave" Continued...

Issue: "Demsnami," Nov. 4, 2006

So longtime Postville folks, as they barely became used to the Hasidim, faced from their perspective another invasion: Hundreds of Hispanic immigrants came to work at the slaughterhouse. They filled up apartment buildings and trailer parks, almost doubling Postville's population. Their children kept Postville schools open at a time when nearby school districts had to close or merge schools.

Longtime Postville residents, like many Americans, discuss immigration pluses and minuses. Property values and food choices have increased. The Postville school district, aided by state grants, has constructed a new auditorium and track and began this fall a program designed to make every student bilingual by the eighth grade. Many immigrants from Mexico work very hard and stand in line on Saturdays to send home remittance checks.

But Postville council member Jeff Reinhardt argues that the town's Hispanics have "a lack of respect for our laws and culture which contributes to unwed mothers, trash in the streets, unpaid bills, drugs, forgery, and other crimes." Many Hispanics are undocumented and cannot get a driver's license or car insurance, and some drivers involved in accidents have simply left town. The number of arrests in Postville jumped from seven in 1992 to 28 in 1998, but fell to 12 this past year.

A new Postville wrinkle emerged in 2004 when a PETA activist secretly videotaped the slaughtering process and showed workers pulling out steers' tracheas with a hook to speed bleeding. The tape depicted staggering animals slamming their heads against walls, with the death throes of one lasting three minutes. This past March PETA obtained and gave to The New York Times an internal Department of Agriculture report that faulted the 10 government inspectors at the plant for allowing cruel treatment and unsanitary conditions, not making complete inspections of carcasses, taking improper gifts of meat from plant managers, and sleeping or playing computer games on the job.

The Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 requires stunning in slaughterhouses but exempts religious slaughter that includes quick cutting of an animal's neck. The question for USDA inspectors and for Jewish organizations is whether the killing is quick enough so that the animals do not suffer. Orthodox and Conservative Jewish organizations, along with Israel's chief rabbinate-Agriprocessors is the only American plant that exports kosher food to Israel-have investigated the plant and asked for changes.

The Jewish Daily Forward, a century-old New York publication that now comes out weekly with both English- and Yiddish-language editions, has had periodic reports on Agriprocessors, noting that the company's "kosher seal gives it an apparent moral imprimatur in a business that is known for harsh working conditions and labor violations. But even in the unhappy world of meatpacking, people with comparative knowledge of Agriprocessors and other plants say that Agriprocessors stands out for its poor treatment of workers."

Yet through it all Agriprocessors has apparently been profitable, and the company this past summer had a grand reopening of another long-closed meatpacking plant, this one in Gordon, Neb., an area also hit hard by population declines. At the time of the opening two-thirds of the 100 employees were American Indians, so the plant-located in an empowerment zone established by the Oglala Sioux Tribe-qualified for tax incentives.

In mid-October on Postville's Lawler Street an electric sign at Sunday Mattress Factory Direct displayed its Thought for the Week: "Never spit in a man's face unless his beard is on fire." And at the city's outskirts a sign proclaiming that Postville is "Home Town To the World" now greets visitors. As in America generally, it's still not clear whether the result will be a melting pot, a salad, or a fire.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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