May 15, 2009
By Marcelo Ballvé
New America Media
Editor’s Note: On May 12, 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided a meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, and arrested 389 immigrants. The raid involved hundreds of agents, helicopter support, and had a multi-million dollar price tag. Veronica Cumez, one of the undocumented workers, recalls that day and talks about its aftermath with reporter Marcelo Ballvé .
May 12 is a black mark that will always live on Veronica Cumez’s calendar. On that day in 2008, armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Postville, Iowa slaughterhouse where she worked packing chicken parts into styrofoam boxes.
“It’s as if it happened yesterday,” she said in a phone interview on the eve of the raid’s first anniversary. “Everything that has happened since has been so hurtful.”
In all, ICE agents nabbed 389 immigrants. The number serves as an indicator of the raid’s tremendous scale. It involved hundreds of agents, helicopter support, and a multi-million dollar price tag. It devastated Postville itself, pushing the town into an economic crisis from which it still has not emerged.
But the impact on those at the heart of the incident, the hundreds of arrestees, can only be guessed by examining the twists of one individual’s post-May 12 life.
The day of the raid, Cumez, a soft-spoken 33-year-old mother of three, said she scrambled to hide from the agents. Desperate, she tried to conceal herself in a mound of packing boxes, but was quickly discovered.
One agent, Cumez said, angered by the immigrants’ attempts to hide, smacked her on the head with his hand before hauling her out of her hiding place. Soon after, he apologized, saying he hadn’t realized she was a woman.
It was only the first humiliation in a year full of them, as she struggled through her new existence as a U.S. government immigration detainee.
Like a few dozen of the 389 arrested on that day, Cumez has been under virtual arrest, monitored by federal agents via an electronic ankle bracelet. Meanwhile, her case inches through the notoriously slow immigration courts.
Every day, in a ritual emphasizing their helplessness, they must plug the bracelets into a wall socket at their homes and remain virtually chained while the GPS-based device recharges.
“It’s bothersome,” Cumez said of the ankle bracelet, “but it’s something we have to put up with.”
Some among the Agriprocessors workers released with ankle bracelets have been granted temporary work permits, since they are cooperating with investigators prosecuting their former bosses in trials on fraud, child labor, and immigration charges.
But Cumez hasn’t been lucky so far. Though she aches to work, she must still rely on charity from Postville churches for groceries and rent.
Besides anxiety, loneliness is also a major ingredient of her new life. In the weeks and months after the raid, an entire network of kin from her village in Guatemala, San José Calderas, including three brothers-in-law, were either arrested and deported or abandoned Postville.
But the most wrenching moment came in September. Early that month, Cumez was forced to send away her 14-year-old daughter, Silvia, to Guatemala.
Mother and daughter had attained a measure of stability over the course of their first years in Postville. They lived in a house on a street of trim lawns and a fire station. They shared a house with six other immigrant workers, and Silvia attended the local public school and learned English.
The raid changed everything. Only a few weeks after May 12, their home was already eerily empty. All Cumez’s housemates had been swept up in the raid or abandoned town in a hurry. A couple of their abandoned cars clogged the driveway.
One of Cumez’s brothers-in-law, Faustino Lopez, had moved into the house, but soon the danger of being arrested proved too great, and he also left.
Cumez knew it would be hard to provide well for Silvia with the charity she was offered while she remained in limbo, but more than anything what triggered their separation was fear.
Since Silvia didn’t have papers, Cumez worried about what would happen if she was ever discovered. She didn’t want her daughter to live through anything like the trauma she had experienced. Plus, Silvia was also nervous living amid the debris of their former lives, and wanted to go back.
On a muggy early September afternoon, some four months after the raid, Cumez said goodbye to Silvia with hugs and tears on their home’s back deck. Mother and daughter didn’t know when they would see each other again. They both knew years might go by.
After putting up her dark hair, fastening on hoop earrings, completing a few last-minute cell phone calls to friends, forcing smiles for snapshots, and final goodbyes, Silvia stepped into a van in the driveway. It ferried her five hours to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and the flight to Guatemala.
Cumez remained behind, suddenly alone. In the kitchen of her house, she told a visitor that she hoped she might be able to see her daughter again before the long Iowa winter and the holidays, a hope that didn’t pan out.
Within an hour or two of her daughter’s departure, Cumez was at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, crying and being consoled by her lawyer Sonia Parras Konrad.
“I always ask God that he help reunite us,” she said.
For now, Silvia is in San José with her 16-year-old sister, Azucena, and a 10-year-old brother, José Alexander, at their grandmother’s house.
Without their mother’s remittances to shore up family finances, Silvia can’t afford the luxury of school at her age, and instead stays at home to help care for her little brother, as well as four nephews and nieces who share the home.
Despite all these setbacks, Cumez still clings to a last hope. She’s fighting for a special visa as guardian to a nephew who was an underage worker at Agriprocessors. With the visa, she might stay and work in Iowa and again send money to her mother and children.
She says she’ll participate in today’s demonstrations in Postville to commemorate the May 12 raids.
But at some point on the anniversary day, she’ll have to plug in her ankle bracelet, and it’ll be hard for her to escape the feeling she’s still at square one.