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The thumping sound of helicopters overhead signalled to everyone in Postville, Iowa, that the town's 20-year bargain with illegal immigration was about to end.

With military precision last week, federal investigators led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement descended on the town's largest employer, Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse, with warrants for the arrest of nearly one-third of the town's 2,400 residents.

In the largest immigration raid in U.S. history, 389 people were arrested in a matter of minutes, herded onto buses and interned at the National Cattle Congress Fairgrounds, 120 kilometres away in Waterloo.

They were kept there in a makeshift camp, behind a chain-link fence, watched by armed immigration officers for three days until they could be processed and sent to jails across the state. Nearly 300 have pleaded guilty to reduced charges of document fraud and will serve short prison sentences before being deported, while others are awaiting immediate deportation or have been placed on temporary release for compassionate reasons.

The Iowa slaughterhouse raid is part of a growing trend in the United States, home to anywhere from 12 to 18 million illegal immigrants, that has seen workplace immigration arrests grow tenfold in the past five years. Deemed illegal "aliens," this group has long been the focus of a fierce political debate, most recently in last year's failed attempt to reach a congressional consensus on immigration reform. That effort highlights the enduring tensions in this debate between hawks who want to clamp down on illegal migrants and pour billions into beefing up border security, and those - like the people of Postville, it turns out - who acknowledge that the migrants have earned a place in American society.

Rosa, a 40-year-old mother of two from Mexico, was working on the kill floor the morning of the raid. She had been at the plant for 15 months, and has lived in the United States for 13 years, working a number of factory jobs in Midwestern towns.

When she heard the cries of " la migra," a warning about immigration officials, ringing through the plant and saw her friends drop their tools and run, she slipped into a freezer and hid among the dead chickens. She sat there alone in the cold for several minutes, thinking to herself that everything was over. She would be caught. She would have to go back to Mexico with nothing. The better life she had planned for her children was not to be.

For years she had worried that this day might come, but somehow allowed herself to think it would not. Not here, not in the lush, green farm country of northern Iowa, more than a thousand miles from the Mexican border and a long way from the dense immigrant communities of California, Texas and South Florida. When she finally felt the hand of an ICE agent on her shoulder, Rosa's heart sank. The game was up.

As the illegal workers at the slaughterhouse watched their hoped-for futures dim, the people of Postville fumed. The bust puts the town's major employer in peril, casting a shadow of uncertainty over Postville's future.

At an emergency town meeting this week, Mayor Bob Penrod summed up the mood of an angry and confused town.

"I've asked myself 100 times, 'Why us?' " he said. "We're just a small town in Northeast Iowa."

Postville looks, at first glance, like any other picturesque town in the agricultural Midwest. American flags hang from every lamppost on the main street and a neon Budweiser sign flashes in the window of the local bar.

But it soon becomes clear that Postville is different. Hasidic Jews with long beards and traditional dress cross paths on the main street with Mexicans in cowboy boots and jeans. There's a kosher grocery store next to a Guatemalan restaurant, which sits across the street from the Mexican store that sells everything from diapers to prom dresses and whose main business seems to be money transfers to Latin America.

Postville's transformation began in 1987, when the Rubashkin family, Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn, N.Y., bought a defunct meatpacking plant on the edge of town. The town's population then was 1,400 and shrinking, but it got a boost with the arrival of a few hundred Hasidic Jews from New York and Israel.

At a time when the entire meatpacking industry transformed itself by moving out of big cities to cut costs and undermine the power of unions, the Rubashkins, under brand names such as Aaron's Best and Iowa Best Beef, became North America's largest producers of glatt kosher meat, the strictest kosher designation.

At first, they hired workers from the former Soviet bloc, some of them in the United States legally and some not. But as Stephen Bloom, the author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, puts it, the Eastern Europeans didn't work at Agriprocessors a day longer than was absolutely necessary. As soon as they were established, they moved on to better paying, less dangerous jobs.

"All you need to work in meatpacking is a strong back and a strong stomach," he said. "The problem was that very few local Iowans wanted to work at the plant, because it's bloody and dangerous work, and the pay is quite low."

As the Europeans moved on to better jobs, they were replaced in the late 1990s by new arrivals from Mexico, and then later from Guatemala, who were almost entirely undocumented workers.

"This was America's worst kept secret," Mr. Bloom said. "Everybody knew."

Aurelio, 33, was lucky enough not to be working on the day of the raid. Normally, he guts chickens nine hours a day at the Agriprocessors plant for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

He is the eldest of nine siblings who came to Postville from Chimaltenango, Guatemala. They paid a guide, known as a coyote, $4,000 each to smuggle them across the desert from Mexico into the United States, a sum they had been paying off with their work at the slaughterhouse.

The family came to the United States initially because their father had run up huge debts in Guatemala and they were in danger of losing their farm. They travelled directly to Postville because they had heard it was easy for the undocumented to find work at Agriprocessors, which turned out to be true. Aurelio worked at the slaughterhouse for three years, but he doubts he'll ever set foot inside again.

His eyes are red and stunned, in the rectory of St. Bridget's Catholic Church. He tugs at his Iowa Hawkeyes baseball cap. Six of his siblings were caught in the raid. They're in jail somewhere, but he doesn't know where.

On the day of the raid, he just stayed inside his apartment feeling scared and helpless.

"It's like an earthquake in your life," he said.

Documents filed in court by prosecutors allege that a search of social security numbers in late 2007 showed that more than 75 per cent of the nearly 1,000 Agriprocessors employees were using false documents.

The documents also describe several criminal allegations, including that a methamphetamine lab was operating inside the plant, that employees traded weapons and that one person had their eyes duct-taped shut by a supervisor and was then beaten with a meat hook. The workers' illegal status also made them vulnerable to exploitation, the documents say, in the form of having to buy cars from supervisors to receive better shifts. No company officials have been charged to this point, and Bob Teig, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, said he could not comment on whether more charges would be forthcoming.

The Department of Homeland Security, which took over the immigration file in 2003, says that prosecuting criminal cases against business owners is a far greater deterrent than levying administrative fines, but that criminal cases must be built in stages. As part of their plea agreements, many of the arrested workers have agreed to co-operate in unspecified investigations currently under way. In a statement, Agriprocessors spokesman Chaim Abrahams said the firm is conducting its own investigation and co-operating with federal authorities.

The packing plant was back up and running the day after the raids at reduced capacity, and the company is trying desperately to hire new workers. Amid concerns about a boycott, and having been condemned by some segments of the Jewish community, the company announced yesterday that it also plans to hire a new CEO.

Postville, a conservative town, is an unlikely outpost for pro-immigrant sentiment. As a state trooper said at the emergency town meeting, everyone was up in arms about the immigration problem after a murder involving two migrant workers a year ago, now they're upset about the arrest of the workers.

"When this happened a year ago everyone asked, 'Why aren't we doing something about this?' Well, something did happen now. … It's kind of damned if we do, damned if we don't."

Still, the impression among many non-Latinos in Postville is that the federal government targeted the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Any discussion of the subject often begins with the phrase, "The law is the law, but …"

"We got raped and we got plundered and we got pillaged Monday. Everybody in this town ought to be angry," business owner Lyle Opheim said.

Schools Superintendent David Strudthoff said the raid has been enormously disruptive for local children. When the helicopters appeared and word spread of what was happening, some students started crying in their classrooms. A third of the elementary school's 387 pupils were missing the day after, and about half of them were among the 400 women and children who sought sanctuary at St. Bridget's.

Most have now returned to school, but 10 or so have already left permanently, and with the end of the school year looming, dozens of children whose parents face deportation are set to return to their native countries, including those who are U.S. citizens by virtue of being born here.

"These people have been here 15 years and they're entwined in our families and in our community," Mr. Strudthoff said. "When 10 per cent of the population is imprisoned, it brings a community to its knees."

Mr. Penrod, the town's mayor, wears a blue-collared work shirt with his first name stitched on the fabric. He thinks of himself as a straight-talker who gets things done, which is why he's so baffled by the state of U.S. immigration policy.

How can it be, he asks, that everyone knows these workers are here, that they're needed, that they're willing to do the jobs that Americans won't do, and yet there seems no reasonable, legal way for them to enter the United States as guest workers?

And, of course, the law is the law, but does it make sense to enforce it only once in 10 years?

The stakes for his town are quite clear: Without a reservoir of cheap labour, the Agriprocessors plant may shut down, dragging the economic fortunes of everyone in Postville down with it. Already, immigrant families who avoided the raid are packing up and leaving because they're afraid, and that means local schools will receive less funding next year.

"I'm like everybody else. Illegals, we got to control them," Mr. Penrod said. "But there has got to be reform to help these people. … I can't understand why the federal government can't do that."

Kevin Leicht, a sociologist and immigration expert at the University of Iowa, said the recent upward trend in workplace immigration arrests, which went from 500 in 2002 to nearly 5,000 in 2007, may reflect an attempt to put the issue back on the political agenda.

"You get a big, dramatic raid and that generates a lot of publicity," Prof. Leicht said.

"One thing I worry about is whether this is a deliberate strategy. Are we going to see a bust every few weeks to get immigration on the radar?"

Somebody in Washington is hoping that the publicity will generate more impetus to deal with the issue of immigration reform, he added.

"There's a sense of frustration that nobody in the House or Senate is moving on comprehensive immigration reform," he said.

"We have an immigration status quo that really doesn't work. We need comprehensive immigration reform and we're not getting it."