The Day ICE Came to Town

by Dr. Kerris Dillon

Dr. Kerris Dillon
Professor of Psychology

It was May 12, 2008 and I had a little over 2 weeks of high school to teach before I would be finishing my 6th year of teaching. My mother who had taught elementary and middle school for 32 years told me to keep the kids busy and this would pass the time easier. She was right. My mom was always right when it came to teaching. Even though it was difficult, I really enjoyed teaching in a small town where I knew every single kid in the high school. There were only 2,200 people living in Postville, Iowa and it never bothered me that many of my students were from countries all over the world. In fact, I saw it as a benefit in my social studies classroom.

It was easy to learn the swear words in Spanish, Russian, and other languages spoken in the hallway because those were the words used the most and with the greatest emphasis. “I heard that!” I declared as I passed groups of students in the hall. “If you don’t think I’ve picked up every swear word in every other language from 6 years of teaching here, you must think I’m a fool.” The Russian students looked up from their loud animated discussion and smiled. “Oh, really Mrs. D. What did we just say?” I stopped cold in my tracks and hid a smile before turning back to the group, “If you’d like, I can call your mother and repeat those words to her, if you’d like.” The other Russian students in the group punched their pal and began laughing, speaking in even more dramatic and loud gestures.

I turned my head and continued down the hall and into my classroom. My classroom sat across from the science room and down the hall from my husband, who taught mathematics. This year I had hung flags about my room, especially from each of the countries that my students were originally from. The colorful and historical symbols of Guatemala, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, and many other nations hung next to one another. There were only 176 students in the whole high school so it made for an especially intimate setting where I could teach and learn about different cultures and historical events. I also taught Government, which I took very seriously knowing that many of my students would be taking their citizenship tests in the future. I had come to Postville, Iowa a decade after flocks of immigrants had arrived in the community because a meat packing plant had moved from the east coast to our small town.

It didn’t take long to begin hearing the controversies surrounding the meat packing plant and its management as well as it employees. Some of the students in the high school were only taking classes part-time because they worked full-time at the meat packing plant. Many of the students were only 14-15 years old and needed to make money to send back to their families in Mexico or Guatemala. They could barely stay awake through many of the classes at school because their hours were so long at the plant. It was my guess that some of those students worked closer to 50-60 hours per week. I had also heard stories about fingers being cut off and management asking for sexual favors in return for employment and fake identification papers. It seemed to me that the poor workers at the plant were often victimized in ways beyond that of the management. I can’t imagine a 90 pound Hispanic girl who cut the heads off live chickens to mastermind her fake documents so she could earn money in the U.S.

It wasn’t my job, though, to deal with whether or not someone was illegal or to question how they arrived at our school. My job was to teach whomever walked through my classroom door no matter their language, knowledge, or skill-base. I loved my students and it was easy to want the best for all of them. These students worked harder than other students I had worked with in the past. They had goals and they knew their successes at school meant future success within our nation. Even though many of the students were 4-5 grade levels behind (as our school often taught 1-2 grade levels behind most districts) the teachers were bound and determined to make up the gap. Many of us were exhausted and often complained about our jobs when we got to the teacher’s lounge for lunch. I often grew tired of the bitching and would eat elsewhere at times, but often returned knowing that it was our way of dealing with what we were being handed.

I entered my abnormally large classroom with the giant windows that faced my home and began making sure my lesson plans and classroom supplies were in order for the day. The students started entering 1-2 at a time, often before the bell rang, to see what we were going to do and make some small chat. You can always tell if students in the high school like you because they will congregate in your room in the morning. They love to pick your brain about topics that you can’t talk about during class and mine especially wanted to know my political thoughts as I would never share them during a Government class. My philosophy was that if I was going to be a great Government teacher, no student in my class should ever know to what political party that I belonged. They could eventually figure it out, but I wanted to give each of them a fair chance to hear both sides or maybe even a third side if it ever arose.

I think I became a really good teacher because of my students and all of their language deficits and cognitive deficits. I will never forget teaching geography for the first time at Postville in my 8th year of teaching and my student’s pre-test “high” score for naming each state in the U.S. was 9. Every student could identify Iowa, Hawaii (but couldn’t spell it), Texas, and some California, but many could not identify even the states bordering Iowa. These were likable and extremely well-mannered kids that could tell you anything about farming, but when asked where they had gone in the United States, they asked, “What do you mean? Like, where have I gone in Iowa? I’ve been to Waterloo and Des Moines and stuff. We went to Des Moines in middle school.” I just stopped, stared wide eyed, and thought, “What? Do you mean you haven’t left Iowa?” A majority of the class shook their heads left to right.

My family had been fairly poor when I was a kid, but we still managed to see Montana, North and South Dakota, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and in high school I went to Italy and Greece. We couldn’t afford it, but we made due. Even when I attended public school, the theme at the time in education was, “A Classroom Without Walls”, which meant we went to the opera in Minneapolis, MN and went to Taylors Falls for science to learn about geography and the Earth’s history. My humanities teacher took us to art museums, outside sculpture gardens, and to plays. My own mother had made sure to support local theater organizations and brought in artists and residents as often as she could. Along with other like-minded teachers, my mother had organized black speakers to come to our school to teach about tolerance. I grew up in a small town of 2,000 in Spring Valley, MN with only 1 biracial student. I watched the Cosby Show on a regular basis, but never got to interact with anyone that was black. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother was doing something so extremely important for all of our futures. She was teaching the value of love for others in the classroom no matter what their race, gender, or religion.

Now, I was thriving in a multicultural classroom of my own, but seeing the deficits of poverty, race, immigration, and a lack of equality. My students didn’t have access to birth control like other students did. There was always an average of 2-4 pregnancies that took place each school year and I even went to the funeral of 2 different babies that had been lost to SIDS by my students. I wanted to show them what was in the world through my classroom and I worked my butt off trying to create magic in the subjects of World History, U.S. History, Geography, Government, Economics, Sociology, and Psychology. Yes, I taught all of those classes and it was exhausting! I created caves out of paper where students could take flashlights through and could replicate the artwork of pre-historic times. I wanted them to FEEL what it would be like to be an archaeologist.

I would bring in boxes of sand with gloves and have the students dig for broken pottery pieces that they would have to try and glue back together, all the while plotting what part of the dirt they had found it in. Alongside of that, my word walls read, ARTIFACT, ARCHAEOLOGIST, SETTLEMENT, FOSSIL, etc. I ran psychological experiments, mock trials, choral reading of Greek histories, drew maps, created charts of Chinese dynasties, watched movies like Alexander the Great and JFK, played review games, and everything else I could think of to help these students remember the words, ideas, and themes I was teaching. I wanted to show them how mysterious and wonderful the world was even if I couldn’t take them to all the places that I had once been able to go when I was in school.

A strange buzzing noise in the distance began humming outside my classroom windows. There was an odd repetitive beat to the sound, which seemed to be getting louder and closer to the school each second that passed. We NEVER heard the sound of airplanes in the sky above Postville except for a few small independently owned crafts that would fly overhead when ballgames were playing. I saw a black helicopter start to appear in the distance and my Hispanic students knew what was going on way before I did. Some of them started to hyperventilate, panic, and cry out in distress, rising from their seats and pacing around the room. Finally, in the shouts of Spanish I heard back and forth between the students, I made out the word, “ICE”.

“Immigration???” I asked. “What are they doing here?!?” I started to pace not knowing what to do. All I wanted to do was to protect my students. Many of them weren’t 18 years old and I wasn’t for sure on who was legal or who was illegal. I didn’t care. I had spent the last many years of my life teaching and mentoring these phenomenal little people that I wanted to see do something with their lives. They opened doors for me, brought me food on late nights at the school, the parents were sometimes afraid to look me in the eyes because they had such high respect for teachers that they learned it was disrespectful in their countries to make eye contact. If I had trouble with a student, I rarely called their parents because I knew there would be such harsh punishment when they got home. Just the threat of calling parents was enough to rectify any issue in my classroom.

A few of my students gave me one long stare and then said, “I have to go, Mrs. D. I’m sorry. My family.” I knew what that meant, but I didn’t. They flew open my door, headed to their lockers, grabbed their belongings, and to this day I have never seen them again. I don’t know how they are doing, if they are alive, if they were deported, or if they were able to hide. I didn’t know what to say to my classroom. We just all stood or sat there and stared out the window or attempted to wipe the tears from some of my students faces. I wondered what my husband was doing down the hall or how my daughter in 3rd grade was doing. Come to find out later, my daughter was on her way to music in the high school with her class when the helicopters flew overhead. She didn’t have any idea what was happening, but she said the ones that spoke Spanish began to panic. Some of the kids ran into the high school and others broke down, grasping onto each other. The minute those helicopters flew overhead, there was definitely a difference between the students that knew exactly what was going on versus those that did not.

I turned back to my classroom window to look for the helicopters again and right in front of my eyes, a man with a huge gun and bulletproof vest ran by my window and jumped over the fence to my neighbor’s backyard, right beside my own. When I looked into the distance, I could see other men and women dressed the same way. They seemed to be all over the town, knocking loudly on doors and snatching people that opened them. I felt like I was in one of those movies where a virus is found within a city and the government goes door to door, snatching people from out of their homes. This time, the people had darker hair and darker skin colors and many were my neighbors, my parents, and even were my friends. At the time, I also served as an EMT and later paramedic on the ambulance crew and my pager went off, “Attention! Postville Ambulance! Potential stabbing at Agriprocessers. Potential Stabbing at Agriprocessers.”

I knew most of the ambulance crew was going to be at work and there would be few staff to man the rig. I ran down to the office and asked the principal if I could go. He looked at me and probably didn’t even comprehend what I was saying given everything that was going on. He just shook his head up and down and I flew out the door before he could ask me anymore questions. I flew in my vehicle down to the ambulance station and our sirens roared to life as we exited the garage and headed to the plant. As we neared the factory, I was shocked by what I saw. There was a sea of black EVERYWHERE! There had to be 500-600 ICE agents all in bullet proof vests with black boots, black hats, and what looked to be huge machine gun looking weapons.

A chill ran through my body. I’d never seen anything like it! As the gates opened to the plant, the sea of black had to shift aside as we drove toward the door that had the man we needed to pick up. The ambulance had to slow down because if it didn’t give the agents time to move, we would have hit them. There were so many! As I looked out the window to my left, I saw rows and rows of Hispanic people on their knees and already chained together. An agent with a gun stood to the back of each chained individual with their weapons ready for any resistance. When we finally got to the back of the factory, I exited the ambulance and headed to the changing room where the stabbing had taken place. The minute I arrived, an ICE agent came to my side and began “briefing me”.

“This was not a stabbing, The suspect ran and we chased him around this bench and he cut his leg across this bench,” the agent replied as if I was stupid and would readily take his story as fact. He attempted to speak in Spanish to the Hispanic man, but the man did not reply back. It was well-known throughout the community that if you were caught doing something, you didn’t say anything until you had a lawyer. “He’s not going to talk to you,” I said, “So, you might as well not even try.” I just looked at the agent like he was stupid and then turned back to the wound.

The laceration was a couple inches long and at a point on the leg where it was impossible for him to have been cut by the bench. I looked back at the agent and raised an eyebrow and pursed my lips. Did he think people from Iowa were stupid? Again, the agent started the story that he had once tried to tell me and I stopped him with my hand. “I’m not stupid! Don’t treat me like I’m stupid. I don’t care what badge you are wearing. I need to take this man into the hospital.” I asked for the cart to be brought out and my patient remained completely silent, while we loaded him into the back of the ambulance. “We have to go with you, to protect you and make sure he doesn’t get away or do anything,” another ICE agent stated as we neared the ambulance. I rolled my eyes again at him and said, “This is my ambulance. Stay out of my way.” I was pissed. I am still pissed to this day. I knew this was going to change everything with our school and community and that ICE was going to leave, believing that they had completed a great task, but yet had ruined the lives of hundreds.

“Hey, are you guys going to the hospital???” Another ICE agent yelled in glee as we loaded up. “I wanna go!”

“Me, too!” Another ICE agent yelled.

Two more ICE agents loaded themselves into the back of the ambulance and I remained quiet while I took care of my patient. The ambulance took off toward a town 20 miles from us to a local hospital and I began taking vitals and covering the wound. I made notations about it and everything the ICE agents had said, all the while one of the ICE agents looking over my shoulder. I didn’t care what he thought of my notes, I wrote the summary as accurately as I could. If I had to go to court someday, I planned on telling the truth.

“Do you have to put an IV in him? I totally want to do it if I can! I totally want to put an IV in that thing,” one of the ICE agents asked. “EXCUSE ME?” I snapped! “You are talking about a human being here! Why are talking about him in such a manner?!?” I was livid. “Ya, totally a great human being,” the ICE agent replied sarcastically. “The man has basically stolen someone’s identity and has broken the law. I wouldn’t call him a great human being!” The agent replied. “I was always taught by my parents to value human life and its sanctity. I’m sorry you weren’t taught the same.” I didn’t care what trouble I got in for responding this way. No one would look at a public school teacher and volunteer EMT/paramedic as a law breaking anti-government criminal! I was female, too!

All I wanted was to take care of my patient and make sure his wound was treated and that there was justice brought to whomever did this to him and to this day, I will never know. This was the day that changed everything for me. I have always remained strong and hard in the face of chaos and emotional times. I think it comes from a long line of women in my family that have consistently fought injustice, believe in feminism, and fight for those that cannot fight for themselves. I could talk further about how some of the children from the elementary school were never picked up at the end of the day because both of their parents were taken by ICE, but I won’t. I could tell you about my daughter’s class and how it went from 17 to 9 overnight and somehow each teacher had to somehow move forward not knowing if they would have a job again next year. 20% of our population was taken overnight! Can you imagine 20% of your town disappearing overnight?!?

I didn’t want to teach Government anymore in high school because I no longer believed that I could present both sides in an equal fashion. I get really angry when I hear people share false information about immigration or state awful things about Hispanic people because those people have names to me. They would have dropped everything to come and help you put on a new roof if a storm came through and blew yours off, without expecting anything in return. They were the individuals that would be walking down the sidewalk and come help move boxes out of car and into my garage because they were taught to always help women move heavy items. These individuals had families and children that were already citizens and an established life in a small town in Iowa. The economy of Postville grew greatly because of these wonderful families and when we lost 20% overnight. It devastated our community.

I stayed only one year after the raid. My heart hurt, I was exhausted, and I needed to make a difference in the world. It has been 10 years and I still don’t like talking about the raid. I have had to turn off the news multiple times hearing about the border and children in cages. Those children have names. They have ideas and dreams about the future. I was proud to serve this community for as long as I could and it taught me so much about love, tolerance, and the United States. I still have hope for the future and I will share this story if it means it will help to make a difference. Life is too short to harm those that only want to better themselves and take care of those they love. Please get to know others that are different than you. You will be surprised at what you learn.

The artist for this piece was one of the students at the high school during the immigration raid in Postville, Iowa. His name is William Toj and he was one of the amazing students from this school.

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2 thoughts on “The Day ICE Came to Town

  1. Yes I remember I worked at the daycare that day and could the helicopter some of the toddler knew what it was we had a lock down but we got some kids out to the parents and to take them to a church.

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  2. Kerris, I remember when Postville went through this tragedy, but you certainly gave the facts that you and your students experienced. I consider it a tragedy that you have no idea now where these kids are and how they are doing, or what happened to their parents in the long run. Of course, you think of them daily. You did what you could. Thanks for sharing! And to think this is STILL happening!!!

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