UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2008 / 1220 - Responding to Humanitarian Needs in Postville

Responding to Humanitarian Needs in Postville

By Melissa Hinnen

"The humanitarian crisis in Postville, IA is a reminder that not all US disasters are the result of hurricanes or floods," commented the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, United Methodist Committee on Relief executive for domestic disaster response. An immigration raid on the Agriprocessors meat-packing plant in Postville in May has had a ripple effect resulting in extreme instability in the community. UMCOR issued an emergency grant to the Iowa Annual Conference for crisis management as people in the community struggle to pay rent and utilities, find new work and homes, and put food on the table.

The crisis is complex and affecting different groups of people in different ways. The entire town was centered on employment at the plant. When more than 300 people were arrested because they were undocumented immigrants, labor supply companies brought in Somalian, Palauan and US Americans to work at the plant. When Agriprocessors ultimately had to close because of financial problems, the recruited workers did not get paid. Employees, farmers, and local businesses who rely on their relationship with the plant have also not received compensation.

Thirty women who are undocumented immigrants from Latin America were released from prison and placed under house arrest so that they can care for their children. They may not leave the community and are forced to wear an ankle shackle to monitor their movement. The shackle must be plugged in for two hours every day and causes great discomfort especially when it gets hot from the electric charge. The women are unable to work and have no means to pay rent or feed their families. Many of the children are US citizens and it is unknown what will happen to them.

Forty-three people who were arrested have served their time in prison and been released. They must remain in the area as material witnesses to testify in upcoming court hearings. After they testify, the will be deported. While temporary work permits have been granted, there are no jobs available for them and their resources are scarce.

Hometown of Hope

Once known as the "Hometown to the World," the Postville Response Coalition is finding ways to make the community a "Hometown of Hope." The Postville Response Coalition is composed of community organizations and city and county government officials to coordinate the disaster response efforts and provide services as effectively as possible to those in need.

While there is no United Methodist Church in Postville, Jeff Abbas, a local radio announcer who is a member of Living Faith Parish, a UMC in Monona, heard about the aftermath of the raids and contacted the annual conference. A coalition of clergy and laity from Living Faith Parish-Monona, Decorah, First UMC; Calmar and Burr Oak, Waterloo, Kimball Ave.; Cedar Falls, St. Timothys; and West Union responded as a ministry action team. Using a community organizing approach, they are working with other faith based groups to provide food, transportation and other resources as needed.

Says the Rev. Jaymee Glenn-Burns, who manages the district field outreach, "The needs change every fifteen minutes. Within this atmosphere of chaos, as each need arises, we send out a request within the ministry. We are calling it the 'season of yes' because everyone who has been asked has provided help."

Rev. Glenn-Burns continues, "We are so thankful for the grant from UMCOR. It will allow us to provide crisis management in an organized and systematic way."

How to Help

With grants from UMCOR and the Lutheran Church, Maryn Olson who heads the Postville Central Coordinating Committee is being hired to coordinate crisis services and provide case management. She is working with faith groups, churches, state agencies and other groups to identify and request resources to help the fragile population in Postville. She is also addressing some of the larger issues and injustices that will be necessary for long-term recovery.

Your gifts can provide important resources to help stabilize the community of Postville. Please give generously to Advance #901670, US Disaster Response.

* Melissa Hinnen is the staff writer for UMCOR communications.