Posted by: Josh Hinkle | January 27, 2009

Postville or Bust!

img_0142$3 a day won’t cut it for a family of seven living in the poorest part of Guatemala. That was the struggle a few years ago for a farmer named Henri Catu Tala, before he made the decision to travel two thousand miles north for work. A kosher meat packing plant called Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, had plenty of jobs for the taking. Tala knew it was a risk to work illegally, but his family needed him to in order to stay alive.

I met Tala this week at St. Benedict Church in Decorah. The interview certainly wasn’t part of his original plan. He shared his story in the sanctuary with only the help of a translator. Studying Spanish in college and living in Costa Rica for a time, I understood a great deal of what he had to say, but having the translator there was important. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a word.

Covering the bigger Postville picture since last May’s immigration raid at Agriprocessors, I’ve heard many different opinions on the issue. Some people blame workers like Tala without legal documentation for taking “good jobs” away from Americans. Others blame the federal governmenimg_01411t for mishandling the raid and disrupting the lives of about 400 of the plant’s workers and their families, not to mention the town of Postville. The school system, the economy, and the culture changed overnight. Most detained workers faced deportation to their home countries. But about 40 people, like Tala, are still in Iowa, awaiting the government’s orders to serve as witnesses in the case against Agriprocessors.

Tala told me that he lost hope after the raid. Working in the U.S. gave him enough money to support his family in Guatemala for the first time in a long time. In the nine months since the raid, things went downhill fast. His source of income disappeared. Federal officials required him to wear a security device around his ankle. Then, just fifteen days before our interview, his oldest son died suddenly.

img_01381Tala spoke with his wife about the sketchy details surrounding 13-year-old Deivi’s death. He understands that his son was perfectly healthy, playing in the yard with the other children. His mother found him dead shortly after, but Tala never learned what caused it to happen. Being so far from home, he says it’s not a conversation to have over the phone. He’s afraid of further upsetting his wife or causing her to think she isn’t doing enough to care for their children when he can’t even make enough money to pay for their home. Yes, in the days after his son’s death, they lost their house, too.

Still searching for answers from the federal government about his role as a witness, Tala says he finally received some good news. Officials just issued the detainees in Decorah work permits. Tala now has a job washing dishes at Luther College. He wakes up at 5 a.m. each day to charge his security anklet’s batteries for a half hour, then again before he goes to bed. He says he can’t take any chances of something going wrong, after receiving what he calls a “second chance” at work.

He and another former Agriprocessors worker live in one of the St. Benedict priest’s extra bedrooms for now. While the church provides shelter, he is able to once again provide the necessary funds for his wife and four surviving children in Guatemala. He says federal officials haven’t indicated when he can return home to mourn the loss of his son. But at this point, he hopes the Agriprocessors case carries on for a while, so he can continue his mission in Iowa to keep his family alive.

Click here to see the KCRG story and hear my interview with Tala. Plus, watch the clip below to see what it’s like for Tala to live at St. Benedict Church.

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