Talking Movies: ‘abUSed’ in the Heartland

Screening: abUSed: The Postville Raid

Iowa City Public Library — Wednesday, Sep. 23 at 6:30 p.m.

In a presidential election shaping up to be a personality contest, immigration has become one of the few real issues on which there’s substantive disagreement both between and within the major parties. The Guatemalan documentarian Luis Argueta’s abUSed: The Postville Raid (2010) is a reminder of the precise, heartbreaking facts beyond all the political posturing about big walls and mass deportations.

The film’s main subject is the largest workplace raid in U.S. history. On May 12, 2008, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of Homeland Security) stormed Agriprocessors, Inc., a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, IA. 900 ICE agents rounded up, arrested, and shackled nearly 400 undocumented workers, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico. The immigrant workers were charged dubiously with document fraud, sent en masse to prison and then deported after serving their sentences.

abUSed begins with Pete Seeger’s banjo jangling “This Land Is Your Land,” underlying the documentary’s obvious pro-immigrant agenda, yet Argueta gives us little political posturing or analysis. As the title of his movie indicates, its primary focus is the overlapping forms of abuse suffered by immigrant workers: the misery that made them flee their homeland, their exploitation in the twenty-first century Jungle of the meatpacking plant, their mistreatment by government officials (they’re rounded up like cattle and then actually detained in the Cattle Congress), and the overall injustice of an economic system that makes life difficult to impossible for workers even as money and jobs flow easily across borders.

Another important focus of abUSed is the way the whole town of Postville suffers along with its immigrant workers. The problem is clearly not simply “those people” taking “our” jobs. In the wake of the raid, Postville is given over to the economic and social devastation that inevitably comes when a big chunk of your working population disappears overnight. It’s a small, horrifying picture of what America would look like if Trump’s deportation fantasy were ever realized.

Yet the anxiety that feeds support for Trump’s delusional fantasy is based on something real. It’s shocking for us now to watch Barbara Kopple’s superb 1990 documentary American Dream, which follows an unsuccessful strike in 1985 at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota (less than 100 miles from Postville). Kopple shows that, up until the mid-1980s, Midwestern meatpacking plants employed almost exclusively local, white Americans accustomed to blue-collar jobs that offered access to a middle-class life. American Dream documents how, as Hormel’s profits increased substantially, the company cut wages for its workers nearly in half. Some workers packed up and moved on; those who couldn’t were thrown into poverty.

abUSed is a kind of sequel to Kopple’s American Dream. After the devastation of the gains made by the American worker in the mid-twentieth century, we’re now living out a twenty-first century variation on Gilded Age working conditions. In some of abUSed’s most wrenching moments, we witness 14- and 15-year-old immigrant workers at Agriprocessors, Inc—a highly profitable company—reporting on working 12-hour shifts in unsafe conditions without overtime pay.

One bright spot in abUSed is the strong, loving support of the local Catholic Church (watch out for Sister Mary!), and Jewish groups’ powerful criticisms of Agriprocessors’ unkosher labor practices. These groups pointedly ask, “How is it that we put so much care into following the Bible’s laws about how to treat meat but ignore the Bible’s laws about how to treat workers?” The question resonates beyond the codes of religion. If we are a land of law and order, then there’s something clearly wrong with companies that employ undocumented workers and operate under the radar. But aren’t we also a land of immigration, opportunity and justice? What would it mean to reconcile the latter and the spirit of our country’s laws?

Following an abUSed screening at the Iowa City Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sep. 23, the director will be on hand for screenings and discussion of his documentary at the Iowa City campus of Kirkwood Community College at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, Sep. 24. It’s wonderful that Argueta himself will be on hand to discuss, from an international perspective, the many questions that his relentless documentary compels us to ask. Any participant in our democracy should be there—and that goes double for presidential candidates.

Scott Samuelson is the author of The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone and the recent recipient of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 184.

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