Hospitality in our Heartland

By Melissa Bowe, NJFON Program Manager.

Decorah is about 15 miles south of the Minnesota-Iowa border and is the northernmost town in Iowa. It is also the newest clinic location for Iowa-JFON. I had the distinct pleasure of flying to Wisconsin a few weeks ago and driving across farm country to the new clinic to meet and train their volunteers.

One thing was clear from the onset of my visit: legal information for immigrants is in high demand. I don’t know how many of you remember when the “Postville Raids” swept the news a few years back, but I sure do. I remember watching images of kids crying as their parents were taken away in buses. I remember the community speaking out. And I also remember the story disappearing as other headlines took our attention in a different direction. Here is a little reminder taken from ThinkProgress.org,

In May 2008, over 1,000 Homeland Security agents in full SWAT gear, helicopters and SUV descended on the small town of Postville, Iowa. 300 undocumented workers were detained at Postville Agriprocessors, a kosher meat packing plant. 300 of the 389 workers served five month jail sentences before getting deported. Many did not have prior criminal convictions. In the days and months following, more than 1,000 individuals who were not caught in the initial raid, most of Guatemalan origin, left the small town of nearly 2,300…The cost of the raid totaled over $5 million. In the end, the raid has been viewed as a disastrous approach to undocumented immigration control. For more of an in depth look, check out this free, internationally recognized 220px-Agriprocessors_protestdocumentary entitled “Abused.”

The folks in Postville, Decorah, and other neighboring towns are still living with the aftermath of that Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid. Although demographics have changed a bit (Postville’s Latino community was largely replaced by Palauan Islanders who could legally work because of its U.S. protectorate status, and were then replaced by Somali immigrants), Decorah volunteers spoke freely about the fear and isolation their immigrant brothers and sisters expressed on a day-to-day basis. Community members are still grieving the loss of family members who were deported, their family having been permanently fractured.

An interfaith coalition, mainly stemming from Northeast Iowa’s Peace and Justice Center, is dedicated to creating a new landscape for immigrants and Iowa-JFON’s expansion to Decorah will be part of this new, welcoming and inclusive effort. JFON attorney Ann Naffier will travel to Decorah once every three months and provide free legal services, alongside our typical hospitality, child care and intake clinic components. The clinic leadership team is working with representatives from the different immigrant communities in their area to work out shuttles to the clinic and have also developed partnership with a Spanish Professor at the local university who will send her students to volunteer as interpreters at the new clinics.

Knowing that we are bringing such needed services to a community still healing from a traumatizing, dehumanizing event makes me proud of what we do at JFON. Please join me in welcoming Decorah, Iowa as one of our newest clinics in the network!

Photo credit: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.