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Postville priest pushes for immigration reform

May 17, 2009

POSTVILLE - The Rev. Paul Oudekirk first noticed early signs of progress in his relentless advocacy for immigration reform one month ago.

He was speaking about the humanitarian and economic fallout of last year's immigration raid on Agriprocessors, Postville's kosher meatpacking plant, in Rochester, Minn. when a man confronted him over his work.

"One of our first questions that comes to us, 'You're working with criminals, that's illegal. You shouldn't be promoting the breaking of our laws,'" he said.

Article Photos

Father Paul Oudekrik, left, and Paul Rael, right, move a washer and dryer onto a porch of a family who currently doesn't have one in Postville. Father Ouderkirk has been made several trips throughout the midwest to talk about immigration reform, using Postville as a talking point.

For a moment, Oudekirk, a former Hispanic minister at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Marshalltown, was stunned. Faith leaders at St. Bridget's Catholic Church in Postville, where Oudekirk currently ministers, have criss-crossed the Midwest for much of the past year on a fervent mission: To use Postville as a bully pulpit for comprehensive immigration reform.

Until then, he had never encountered resistance to his message. Upon further thought, he realized the momentum for reform gained by President Barack Obama's pledge to pursue the issue in 2009 had made immigration reform again within reach.

The main players lobbying for change say Postville will play a central role in a heated debate that produced 500,000-person marches just three years ago and thousands of impassioned phone calls to members of Congress.

"I can assure you that Postville has become a symbol of why we need to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform. Postville is a perfect example that there are humanitarian consequences, economic consequences and security consequences when you fail to act," said Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Waterloo.

The polarizing debate seems to leave little room for middle ground. Opponents of immigration reform applaud the efforts in recent years to increase the visibility and number of immigration raids.

They too see Postville as the poster child for a failed system, but through a prism of lost jobs and suppressed wages caused by illegal immigration.

"Postville was a high profile case of an unscrupulous employer and illegal aliens working in the plant. How can that be an example of some sort of benefit of a mass amnesty? That was not exactly the finest hour for the illegal alien lobby," said Bob Dane, director of communications at FAIR, Federation for American Immigration Reform.

But the main players in the push for immigration reform think they have found room for agreement: Secure the nation's borders, and allow undocumented workers a path to citizenship after they pay a fine and face other consequences.

Most importantly, it appears Americans will support a plan that follows that outline: A Washington Post/ ABC News poll in March found 61 percent of respondents support giving illegal immigrants legal status if they pay a fine and meet other requirements. Two years ago, only 49 percent of respondents favored the idea.

Other independent polls have found similar levels of support, said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America's Voice, a Washington-based group lobbying for reform.

Besides Obama's repeated promises to address a broken immigration system, Tramonte sees another major reason for hope. Last month, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, two of the nation's most powerful union groups, hammered out a list of immigration reform measures they will support.

They include providing full access to labor, health and safety laws to all workers, immigrant and native-born, to reduce the exploitation of all workers. They reason a robust enforcement of workers' rights will ensure immigration does not depress wages and working conditions. Like other plans, unions support an independent commission to manage immigration levels to meet the needs of the U.S.

"Both parties need to learn the lesson of the November election. American voters want progress on tough problems; they want practical policies. Immigration has become symbol of how Washington doesn't work," Tramonte said.

But Dane, the FAIR spokesman, said the last major immigration overhaul produced a long trail of broken promises: More border patrol agents, increased employer sanctions and a work authorization system that never materialized.

That's why the only solution he will support is increased enforcement, which he said produces some self-deportation. He said some disputed evidence exists that increased enforcement works, but nothing definitive, because past economic downturns have also produced lowered immigration levels. Like those who favor reform, he believes he has the support of the American public.

"Even under Bush's term two years ago, we were doing pretty well - we at least had the illusion of prosperity - even then, there was such blow-back from the American public," he said.

Braley admitted quelling vocal opposition in tough economic times will be one of the main obstacles to passing immigration reform.

A successful effort, he said, will focus the debate on developing a system that shows respect for the law, considers existing employment needs and acknowledges the more than 12 million undocumented workers living in the country. If that is done, he said, immigration reform will not harm the American worker.

The promise of a better life for all workers is what keeps Oudekirk, the Postville priest, going. Last week he wore a shirt with the message, "justicia ahora" - justice now - scribbled in permanent marker.

At 77 years old, he does not want to wait any longer for reform, so he'll continue to pile up the miles on his Ford Focus, building support one Midwestern community at a time.

"We're constantly told by politicians the reason why they didn't get a new law when Bush was pushing it was because the number of calls was 10-to-1 in favor of more strict laws. So we're telling people, 'Hey, let's change that ratio,'" he said.



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