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Documentary furthers conversations about immigration in Grinnell

Photo contributed by Drake Public Library.

By George Kosinski

Photo contributed by Drake Public Library.

On Sunday, October 6th, America First: The Legacy of an Immigration Raid will be screened from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Drake Community Library. This documentary recounts the story of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid that took place in 2008, during which 389 undocumented immigrants were arrested and subsequently deported from Postville, Iowa, a small city just under three hours northeast of Grinnell.

The screening is sponsored by local nonprofit Community Services for Immigrants (CoSI), which was founded just over a year ago by Grinnellian David Isch, now the Chairman of the organization’s Steering Committee, along with a group of like-minded residents concerned for immigrant’s quality of life in Grinnell and the United States as a whole. A combination of factors led to their concern, one of which being the lasting effect of the Pottsville raid.

“The community has never recovered,” said Isch. “You go to Postville now; the businesses have never recovered. There are a lot of empty stores, and the community is still reeling from what was a very large raid. [It had] an influence upon our thinking [in that] it would be best to be prepared, rather than have to do mop up operations afterwards.”

More recent challenges faced by immigrants in Central Iowa also influenced CoSI’s creation. Isch related stories of several immigrants who, after being told to go back to where they came from or receiving disparaging comments based on their ethnicity, voiced the opinion that it is possible for Grinnell to be a more welcoming community. Trouble in nearby towns has also played been a contributing factor.

“There have been some incidents,” said Isch. “Not in the Grinnell schools that we’re aware of, but in Brooklyn there has been taunting of immigrant students in the school system. Actually, six families left Brooklyn because of the intense pressure. It’s out of those local experiences that we decided something, somebody needs to come together and start to talk about immigration and also prepare for it.”

All of this led 90 residents to come together and form CoSI. “We need to be a welcoming, diverse community where people learn to live together and respect each other,” says Isch. In order to achieve this, CoSI serves the local immigrant population in many ways: providing English lessons every other Friday, evaluating degrees obtained in other countries so individuals know the United States equivalent, and getting immigrants into the job market by helping them build resumes.

The organization provides more services for undocumented immigrants; namely a Preparedness Plan that details steps which can be taken if an ICE raid occurs. In the event of a raid, CoSI will assist those in need with food, water, shelter, living expenses, transportation, health care, mental health service and interpreting. Immigrants are instructed to contact CoSI if they are arrested so they can be matched with an attorney. Isch highlights the importance of this step, saying, “It is critical, when an individual is arrested, that we interact with them and they know to call our number. If they don’t get legal representation immediately, the whole process of deportation is immediately put into place.”

Last May, one raid saw 32 individuals arrested and detained in nearby Mount Pleasant, Iowa. ICE has also been reported in Pella, just forty minutes southwest of Grinnell, within the past few weeks. This recent and local action by the agency has led Isch to the conclusion that preparing for raids in the Grinnell area is an absolute necessity.

In the meantime, CoSI’s Education Committee has arranged for the screening of America First: The Legacy of an Immigration Raid. Isch hopes that this will serve a dual purpose, educating immigrants regarding the perils of raids while also fostering empathy among local residents and informing them of the many issues that immigrants face.

Marilyn Kennett, Director of the Drake Community Library, shares that opinion. “It can achieve a greater understanding among cultures and invoke in all of us a humanitarian response to people in need and in different situations,” she said of the screening. The library’s board has signed a letter in support of CoSI’s Preparedness Plan, and Kennett sees the organization as in agreement with the library’s values.

“We felt that our core values aligned with their mission,” said Kennett. “We value our library users by providing them with our services in a nonpartisan and nonjudgmental manner that is sensitive and supportive of human differences.”

All Grinnellians are welcomed and encouraged to attend the screening of America First: The Legacy of an Immigration Raid. For those wishing to get even further involved, however, CoSI is now actively looking for Grinnell student volunteers. Current Grinnell student Sofia Martinez ’23, who interned in the field of immigration at a nonprofit in Chicago and a law firm in Washington, DC, highlights the importance of this work.

“I think that the way the world is so interconnected now, it’s kind of hard to be aware of what’s going on,” said Martinez. “Like the construction workers that were here over the summer, maybe most of them are going to have documentation. But what about some of their family members if we want to go that far? To say that there are no people in Iowa that need our help is really wrong.” On CoSI, she concluded, “That kind of organization is massively important.”

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