Four years after a federal immigration raid upended an Iowa town, one reunited family aims to make a new life for itself in Postville.
Above: Rosa Zamora and Fermin Loyes relax with their daughters, Merlin, 10, and Ilvana, 5. The family was split up after the 2008 federal immigration raid in Postville, but have reunited after years of struggles and challenges with the kindness and love of American strangers.villaI
she remembers the federal agents yelling.
“You have nowhere to go!”
So true. Rosa Zamora and husband Fermin Loyes had nowhere to go to make a decent living, so they illegally migrated from Guatemala to Postville, Ia., 10 years ago and worked in a packing plant that offered low wages, mistreatment and dark memories.
Zamora and the other women were herded in one line, Loyes and the men in the other, as a woman fainted and others cried for their children. Zamora and Loyes wouldn’t touch each other again for three years.
The 2008 morning of the federal raid on Agriprocessors is still a wound, a memory of nowhere to go. But Rosa Zamora found that Postville became a somewhere.
The small northeast Iowa town is where she learned an American dichotomy — cruelty and exploitation of immigrants mixed with love and kindness from American strangers.
The family that became a face of the raid, appearing in documentaries, newspaper reports and lectures, will now tell the other half of their story — how an Iowa senior citizen, a priest and a lawyer saved the family.
“Where is my dad?” asked Zamora’s daughter Merlin, then 6 years old. “When is he coming back?”
Zamora made a promise to her daughter after the Immigration and Custom Enforcement raid. One day she would see her father again.
It was a slim hope. But hope was all the family knew. Fermin Loyes came to America alone in 2002 with a dream to give his children a better life, education and a comfortable home that had become impossible in Guatemala, working for a florist for barely enough to feed his family. He moved to Postville and began working at Agriprocessors, one of the country’s largest processors of kosher meat.
Two years later, Zamora arrived with Merlin on New Year’s Eve after Loyes gathered enough money to pay so-called “coyotes” to get them across the border illegally. She joined her husband at Agriprocessors.
The rural town of 2,200 had been transformed into an island of diversity in the years before, the Orthodox Jewish plant owners hiring Russians, Ukrainians, then Mexicans and Guatemalans to work the lines. Postville’s town slogan was “Hometown to the World.”
Loyes, 32, cut up meat and Zamora, 42, packaged it. Some days, she said, she arrived at 9 a.m. and didn’t finish until 2 a.m. if managers demanded it.
Loyes quickly learned of screaming managers and their manic approach toward immigrants. One day when he nearly dropped from fatigue, he said he needed to stop for a few minutes. He was fired.
He gathered his things, but when another supervisor saw him leaving he said, “You come back tomorrow.”
It happened more than once, Loyes said — one supervisor would fire him and another rehire him the same day.
“People withstood this treatment because we didn’t have papers,” Loyes said through a translator. “You had no rights to say anything.”
They were at work only 10 minutes when workers ran. Zamora found Loyes, futilely looking for hiding places, when he told her: “Tell them the truth. Tell them your real name. Tell them you have children.”
Zamora did and was given two bracelets to wear, signifying she had children, Merlin and little Ilvana, born in the United States just the year before. The women without children wore one bracelet. Taken to a bus to wait for eight hours, Zamora refused food because she was worried about her children at school and the babysitter.
There were 389 undocumented workers arrested that day. St. Bridget’s Catholic Church had become a sanctuary for families caught in the raid. Zamora’s children weren’t there. It was the worst day of many to come. She didn’t sleep all night. The children had been hiding and she found them the next day.
The next three years, she survived only by the goodness of people, including a senior citizen from nearby Decorah.
Priscilla Sliwa, 73, had worked for years at Luther College in Decorah and for government job training programs. She retired to tend a small orchard in the country with her husband, David. She was driving her car on the day of the raid and over the radio heard the frightful sounds of helicopters during news reports. She couldn’t forget it.
By Sunday at her Quaker worship service, she felt a “welling up” and a call to go to Postville to help. The next day she showed up at St. Bridget’s and saw this tiny woman named Rosa and her two small children. She had to help.
Sliwa had traveled through Guatemala in a Volkswagen bug with her children and husband on a research trip years ago and saw the vibrancy and the tragedy of their culture. The latter, she had concluded, was caused by U.S. meddling in their government.
“I felt that if there was something I could do to connect with one family’s life I would do it,” she said.
The second time she met Zamora, she was in her home, piling all her belongings in a huge box. Zamora figured she would have to go back to Guatemala.
But she was allowed to stay, wearing a monitoring anklet to assure she would not stray far, and Sliwa began to help Zamora. She took the children to the swimming pool or on trips outdoors. She helped with transportation and food, entertained the children on overnight stays, and tried to teach Zamora English. One day in a sandbox, building castles with the family, Sliwa watched Zamora construct tiny mountains in the sand.
“These are the volcanoes I could see from my home in Guatemala,” Zamora said.
Sliwa said it was the only time she talked wistfully and lovingly about Guatemala.
The children began thinking of the Sliwas as grandparents.
The couple even hauled Zamora and the children to the jail in Waverly where her husband was detained. Loyes put his hand to the glass that separated him from his family. The children put their hands up to the glass opposite their father’s.
“It was heart-wrenching,” Sliwa said.
The Rev. Paul Ouderkirk and Sister Mary McCauley and many others began to take care of the mothers wearing anklets at St. Bridget’s. After the raid, some 200 a day packed the place. They had nowhere to go.
“I discovered this tiny lady named Rosa. You couldn’t help but sense this inner strength, courage and willingness to sacrifice for her family,” Ouderkirk said.
He watched Zamora load a container of charity soup in the bottom of her stroller and push it through the snow back to her roach-infested home.
Zamora had to charge her monitoring anklet for two hours every couple of days, and it cut into her tender leg. But she was astonished to find so much help.
“The Catholic Church was helping me pay rent and all the bills of the house. They gave us cards to buy things at Walmart,” she said through a translator. “A woman helped us make jewelry to sell. It was the way I was surviving.”
It was a difficult time and she often thought of returning to Guatemala.
“Sometimes, the children are sick. Alone, I cry. But I never lose hope. Something good will happen.”
Ouderkirk, who is retired, began to become a “professional beggar” as he asked people for help to care for the 50 women with anklets. Yet he saw Zamora, herself growing thin from worry and missing her husband, become concerned about how much Ouderkirk was eating, and she begin to serve meals to him.
“Out of their necessity, they fed us,” he said. “Can you believe it?”
In the months that followed, he began taking Zamora to public presentations about the raid at universities, where the uneducated woman showed no fear of getting up to tell her story, which in the years that followed she would also share in the documentary “abUSed” and in the New York Times.
“One day I teased her, ‘Rosa, you are going to become famous. You are going to become a college professor.’
“Yes father,” she said, “one that cannot read or write.”
A year, then two, passed and she was away from her husband.
Ouderkirk, eventually penniless from years of helping the immigrants, couldn’t afford an apartment and later moved to Wisconsin to live with religious sisters.
Loyes was deported to Guatemala, with bitterness over an ordeal that lasted more than six months after the raid.
He described long nights without proper food as the undocumented men were processed in Waterloo. As they slept on bunks, a man would awaken them by rattling his nightstick on their bed posts as he passed, he said. After a few weeks in a Waverly jail, he was shipped to a prison in Louisiana, where he fulfilled a five-month sentence.
Again, he saw competing forces of cruelty and understanding. One day, he said, he had a bothersome tooth pulled and a prison guard told him he was OK to rest for the afternoon instead of working. Another guard saw him lying down and he was put “in the hole,” or solitary confinement, for shirking his work duty.
On the only airplane rides of his life, his deportation trip to Guatemala, he said, he ate like a dog with arms and legs chained to the floor. There he worked as a security guard, always thinking of his family in Iowa.
They could talk on the telephone, and Merlin continued to ask, “When am I going to get my father back?”
“I never lost hope,” Zamora said. “A lawyer came to help me and she said, ‘Wait, something good will happen.’ Sonia, bless her, didn’t ask for money.”
Sonia Parras Konrad, a Des Moines immigration lawyer, represented more than 200 immigrants claiming to be victims of violence or sexual assaults at Agriprocessors. Her goal for Zamora and more than 50 workers was a U-Visa, which allows victims of violence to stay in the United States.
“They were in a virtual trafficking situation. They understood they couldn’t leave,” Parras Konrad said. “This was a crime that happened to these people that they endured for many years. It moved me to help.”
On May 5, 2010, Parras told Zamora she had been granted a U-Visa.
“I was jumping, so happy,” Zamora said. “But still I worried about my husband.”
She also needed work. Agriprocessors had closed, its chief executive Sholom Rubashkin sentenced to 27 years for financial fraud.
Postville had already gone through sweeping changes as the town emptied, then refilled with new workers from Texas with questionable pasts and even from a far-flung Pacific island called Palau before new ownership opened Agri Star at the same plant. Zamora had no other options, so she returned to work at the plant, she said, with a couple of others from her native country who were also caught in the 2008 raid.
“When I went back there it is very sad for me. I cried remembering (the raid),” she said of her July, 2010, return to the packaging line. “But I have needs and am alone.”
But Zamora’s U-Visa allowed Parras Konrad to work to reunite the family. Family members of those with a U-Visa could return to the United States legally.
After months of waiting, it finally happened last May.
Sliwa took the family to Des Moines International Airport and watched the children leap into their father’s arms.
“There was just pure joy of a father with his children in his arms,” she said.
Zamora turned to her children that day.
“Here is your father. Like I promised you.”
In the year since, a lot has happened. Loyes finally got a work permit and is employed with a roofing and siding company. The children, now 5 and 10 years old, both entered Postville schools in August, where 45 percent of the student population this year is Hispanic, another 9 percent is African American and 2 percent is European.
“It’s never totally stabilized when you have a meat-packing plant,” said school Principal Chad Wahls. “But the town is once again pretty stable.”
The great diversity experiment continues. The town, according to some, is still wounded, but healing. New Somalians have brought their children (the number has doubled in schools) and as many as a dozen children of deported Guatemalans have returned.
“A year ago we hit bottom and are slowly rebuilding,” said Aaron Goldsmith, a former city council member who owns a local company. “Postville could have exploded after the raid. But there were no attacks on Jews or Hispanics, no graffiti. That speaks to the character of the citizenry.”
Some locals say the plant still doesn’t offer living wages for a family and a steady churn in the workforce keeps the town destabilized. Agri Star officials did not return telephone calls.
But there is a pride here among those who can look at the family of Zamora and Loyes and feel good, including the Sliwas, who are still a constant in their lives.
“I know there are good people here and I know there are people who are racist,” Zamora said. “But the pay is better and no more screaming. We feel more freedom and no more are afraid of police. Soon we will fill out papers to be residents. I’m asking God to make it okay. But if not, OK, he gave us this opportunity to be here together.”
Written By: Mike Kilen/Des Moines Registar