POSTVILLE, Iowa --- Postville is still a melting pot.
Five years after what was then the biggest immigration raid in U.S. history, people still come from afar in search of a good job and a good life. They are still drawn by jobs at the meatpacking plant --- now under new ownership as Agri Star Meat & Poultry LLC.
Workers still bring families and settle down. But the raid on May 12, 2008 --- when ICE agents detained 389 undocumented workers at the now-defunct Agriprocessors plant --- did leave a mark.
"Prior to the raid there was more a sense of community pride. It was kind of like this American story, this taste of Postville. Look at all these different cultures, this kind of American Midwest pride. We all sort of get along more or less. Where as now it seems a lot more disjointed," said the Rev. Greg Bahl of St. Bridget's Catholic Church.
But the diversity is still evident in the schools, where children from 18 different lands form a kind of United Nations of education and the district's phone directory offers instructions in English, Spanish and Somali.
When students enroll in Cora B. Darling Elementary and Middle School, Principal Chad Wahls tries to soothe first-day nerves.
Regardless of whether the child speaks Spanish, hails from Somalia or Israel or is a native Iowan, the assurances are the same.
"I think by the time you leave today, by tomorrow, when you leave school you are going to have four, five, six friends," Wahls tells them.
He means what he says.
Whether through nature or nurture, Wahls said, his students accept the racial, religious and ethnic diversity that is commonplace in the Northeast Iowa community. In fact, the school is even more culturally diverse post-raid.
"They see kids. They see friends. They don't see people's skin," Wahls said. "They see personality, things like that."
Years before the infamous immigration raid, Postville gained national attention for its striking diversity. The cosmopolitan atmosphere is rare for a rural, Midwestern community with just 2,200 people.
Among the city's residents --- many who came to work at the kosher meatpacking plant --- were Orthodox Jews, Hispanics and dozens of other nationalities from countries in Eastern Europe, Central America, the western Pacific and beyond.
"People used to say it was the hometown of the world," said Bahl.
The raid, coupled with a sagging economy, dealt a painful blow to Postville's business community, housing market, tax base and overall morale. The town is still dealing with the aftermath while trying to forge a new identity.
Community leaders say residents prefer to look to the future.
"I know there's some frustration that Postville, the town, is now defined by the raid," Bahl said. "... If anyone's heard of Postville, that was the place the government came and took half the people."
Hopeful residents see their town differently. Despite scars, people are moving forward.
"Morale is kind of increasing. Things are getting better. There's been some kind of healing," Bahl said.
A terrible thing
Sister Mary McCauley lived and worked at St. Bridget's at the time of the raid. She clearly remembers the hundreds of fearful Latino families who sought shelter at St. Bridget's.
"I think it was such a devastating day. It had a lasting effect in everyone that was present," McCauley said.
McCauley remembers the woman who shared the news federal agents were swarming the plant. The woman said, "A terrible thing has happened to our town today."
Now retired and residing in Dubuque, McCauley advocates for immigration reform that respects the humanity of the families involved.
The faith community and other good Samaritans came to the aid of families displaced by the raid. For several years after, St. Bridget's offered assistance to families unable to pay rent, bills or purchase food after losing their only source of income. The need proved most intense in the weeks and months after the raid. The church provided shelter and rides to out-of-town court dates and helped connect immigrants with counseling and legal assistance.
"There were quite a few families that were dumped back in Postville with no recourse for help," Bahl said.
Bahl accepted a position at St. Bridget's in 2010. Associates quickly brought him up to speed.
"We were still offering quite a bit of financial support at that point," Bahl said. "Until December of that year we still had staff working recovery efforts, and then we even had a lot of volunteer work even into May 2011."
He estimated the value of aid provided easily surpassed $1 million.
In the hours after the raid, many families simply disappeared, by force or by choice.
"We don't know where they went," McCauley said.
Some likely returned to their home countries. Some secured visas and settled legally with their families in the United States.
"Some of them are back in Postville, and some of them are working in Agri Star," McCauley said. "I do know that some of them found it too difficult to set their foot in that building."
Memories of the raid surely linger for affected students, Wahls said, but aren't readily visible.
"I think their families have recovered from it like any other tragic event," Wahls said. "In order to grow ... you have to move on."
Students rotate in and out of the district as their parents move on to other cities and other jobs, which makes tracking demographics difficult.
"It's hard to gauge because we have such a transient population," Wahls said.
He can say Postville is officially a majority-minority school district.
More than two dozen Somali students are enrolled in Postville. Children from Mexico and Central American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala make up at least 45 percent of the study body.
Overall, the district saw an enrollment boost. Prior to the raid 380 students were enrolled in the K-8 building. Now the school counts more than 420 elementary and middle school students, in part due to an unprecedented large kindergarten class of 76 students --- almost double the norm. Enrollment at the high school stayed steady at around 145.
Diversity is increasingly present on the religious front, Bahl said.
In addition to the established Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Jewish communities, newer arrivals include Somali Muslims, Eastern and Orthodox Christians and Hispanic evangelicals.
The challenges of assimilation and the convergence of cultures, while present, aren't the most pressing concerns for Wahls.
"The bigger challenge in my mind isn't diversity, it's poverty," Wahls said. "You can take children of different language origins and teach them English, and they can create friendships where they continue to practice that. I don't know if you can take kids out of poverty."
Bahl and McCauley helped plan a commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Postville raid that was held Friday in Cedar Rapids. The event was meant to remind Iowans of the workers arrested during the raid and build support for the reform of immigration policies.
"My hope is the Postville story will have the power to not only transform hearts but to play a part in the critical transformation of our immigration laws," McCauley said.
"We can really celebrate and reconcile that the tragedy that happened at Postville can be turned into a victory of justice," Bahl said.