The U Turn

Contributed by Megan Fountain

u turn poster

On May 12, 2008, the U.S. government sent 900 heavily armed immigration agents to the
tiny town of Postville, Iowa, to arrest 389 undocumented immigrant workers in the Agriprocessors
kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. This event forms the backdrop for Luis Argueta’s
documentary film, The U Turn. Argueta visited UConn in September to screen his film and
answer questions.

Argueta flew to Iowa immediately after the raid and began documenting the stories of the
Guatemalan-American families who were torn apart. The result was AbUSed: The Postville Raid
(2010). Now, Argueta has produced a sequel, The U Turn (2016), exploring the raid’s aftermath.
In this long story, we meet everyday heroes from small-town America and the Iowa government
who “refused to give up” on their immigrant neighbors. According to census data, there are less
than 800 households in the entire town, so the arrest of 389 people left an indelible mark. At the
town’s entrance, a sign greets visitors, “Postville: Hometown to the World.” Argueta shows how
the town lived up to its motto, in defiance of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
At the center of the story of The U Turn is the struggle of about 70 women and youth victims of
the raid eventually to win permanent legal status (green cards) through the U visa program.
Congress created the U visa in 2000 to encourage victims of domestic violence, sexual assault,
and other violent crimes to cooperate with the police without fear of deportation. An immigrant
victim of one of these crimes who helps the state prosecute it can apply for a U visa. Women and
youth at Agriprocessors who had endured sexual violence from managers, threats of retribution
for non-compliance, and child labor violations, ended up winning U visas. They were allowed to
petition for visas for their spouses, parents, children, and siblings. In total, 179 workers and family
members got green cards.

In Trump’s America, The U Turn’s happy ending seems almost from another era. (Argueta
finished the film before Trump took office.) And one cannot help but think about the other 300
immigrant workers who were deported from Postville and never benefitted from U visas.
Although the Attorney General for Iowa attempted to convict the factory owners on 9,311 counts
of child labor violations, a jury found them not guilty. The AG could not prove beyond a
reasonable doubt that the owners had knowingly hired 32 child workers.
Spurred by this injustice, the Iowa legislature later amended its criminal statutes to make it easier
to convict employers for child labor violations; and to increase the penalty from $100 to $10,000
per violation.

The film dramatizes how vastly out of proportion the resources commanded by ICE are when
compared to what state governments have for enforcing workplace standards and punishing
abusive employers. Whereas ICE mobilized hundreds of agents and circled helicopters around
Agriprocessors, spending millions of taxpayer dollars just on the day of the raid, Iowa could afford
just one child labor inspector for the whole state. The U Turn shows how states and localities can-
-and must–invest in workers’ rights enforcement as an alternative to deportations.