Ex-Postville workers see fresh future in Iowa
BY TONY LEYS
Marshalltown, Ia. - Steady paychecks and helpful strangers are warming the lives of about 20 Pacific Islanders, whose introduction to Iowa was a bitter disappointment.
The group was among 173 people who were recruited last summer from the tiny, tropical country of Palau to fill jobs at the struggling Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville. They were sought out because of a legal provision allowing them to work in the United States without special permits. Agriprocessors was scrambling to replace hundreds of immigrants who worked at the plant before being arrested in a federal raid in May for allegedly being in the country illegally.
The Palauans' Postville hopes evaporated amid allegations that recruiters tricked them with false promises of good pay, sign-on bonuses and housing subsidies. Many of the islanders quickly started talking about taking the 8,000-mile flight back home and returning to their families empty-handed.
But a contingent has landed in Marshalltown, where it has found work, friends and comfortable housing.
Joanne Obak, 29, was among the Palauans who considered abandoning the United States. She had arrived in Postville in October with $10 in her pocket. She had hoped to soon be sending money home to support her 4-year-old daughter, Jianalene, who stayed in Palau with Obak's mother. But within weeks, Agriprocessors decided to shut down temporarily and Obak found herself jobless and penniless.
The weather was turning cold, and Obak thought longingly of the warm, rocky islands of Palau. It's a beautiful place, she said, and she sometimes got to work as a scuba-diving guide there. A few years ago, she earned several hundred dollars per week as a crew member on the American TV show "Survivor," which filmed in Palau. But such opportunities are rare. Many people in Palau work for $2.50 an hour, which isn't enough to support a family. Like most of the other Palauans who came to Iowa, Obak decided to stay on in the United States.
"I thought I owed myself a second chance," Obak said. "And if that second chance didn't work out, then I could go home."
The chance arrived in late October, when representatives from the JBS meatpacking plant in Marshalltown showed up in Postville at a job fair for former Agriprocessors workers.
Tony Harris, human resources director for the Marshalltown plant, said he talked to several discouraged Palauans who were considering a return home. "They were saying, 'Enough's enough,' " Harris recalled. "We said, 'That's all right. We understand. But you came here for opportunity and we have an opportunity to show you.' "
Harris chartered a bus to carry the prospective workers 135 miles to Marshalltown, where they toured the plant and checked out the town. Twenty-one Palauans, plus three other former Agriprocessors workers, signed up for jobs at JBS, formerly known as Swift.
The company was the site of a smaller immigration raid two years ago. Harris said JBS tried to treat the Palauans well because it saw their potential as reliable workers and positive additions to the community. The company put them up in a hotel for a week, then provided $500 each for deposits on rental houses or apartments.
Local church leaders collected donations of furniture, bedding, appliances, dishes, pots and pans for the newcomers. "Our philosophy is to empower these people," said Irv Vaske, a deacon at St. Henry's Catholic Church in Marshalltown. "We don't want to just give out a lot of money and create dependence."
Obak and her friends aren't looking to depend on anyone. But they say they appreciate the outpouring of help, both in Marshalltown and among residents and churches in the Postville area. "I've never had anyone look out for me like this," said Jeremiah Rafael, one of Obak's three roommates.
They are most grateful for the jobs.
Meatpacking work is physically demanding and can be unpleasant. Still, the Palauans aren't complaining. They said that they're making $11 to $14 per hour and that their supervisors are fair. That's all they wanted when they left Palau, they said.
Now, instead of talking about going home, the islanders are settling in. They've found a grocery store that sells red snapper, a fish that is a Palauan favorite. The men have found a supplier of betel nuts, which they like to chew. They've joined a union, and they've found support among their new co-workers, who include many people from Mexico and Africa.
Unlike most immigrants, Palauans are entitled to enter the United States without a passport or visa and automatically qualify to study or work in the country indefinitely. That's because Palau was a U.S.-administered territory until it became independent in 1994 and the islands in the region signed a special "Compact of Free Association." The Palauan workers also have an advantage because they learned to speak English in school.
Few of the Palauans who traveled to Postville remain in that town, but most stayed back in the United States. They're scattered from San Diego to Portland to Chicago, Obak said.
The Marshalltown contingent is the largest group remaining in Iowa, Obak said. She and her friends hope to put down roots. She's saving money to pay for plane tickets for her mother and her daughter, so they can move to Marshalltown. Rafael wants to do the same for his wife and son. People in Palau who heard horror stories out of Postville are starting to find out that Iowa is a promising place.
Obak and three of her friends are renting a big, old house near downtown Marshalltown. On nice days, they walk a little more than a mile to the plant, where they work afternoons and evenings. They've been taking a cab lately because the days haven't been nice, especially for people used to tropical weather.
Rafael, who wears a winter hat indoors, too, said the cold is not so bad. But the wind is the killer, he said.
"Oh, yeah," Obak said, laughing. "That wind has been kicking our butt."
So far, they haven't seen much of Marshalltown, outside of work, home and Wal-Mart. "We come home, and we sleep until almost an hour before we go back to work," said Obak, whose assignment at the plant is to bag and carry pork loins. "It's hard, but it's a new start. A new start is always hard."