I will never forget the harrowing look of fear in the Hilda's eyes. I met her six years ago in Postville, a rural Iowa company town devastated by an immigration raid at a local meatpacking plant.
Hilda told me in her broken English how scared she was when the armed federal agents rushed in, corralled all the workers, and led everyone away in shackles. This was not Hilda's first encounter with masked men carrying guns. Hilda's family was like many others working in the plant. They found refuge in a sleepy section of Iowa after fleeing their small Guatemalan mountain village. In Guatemala, men with guns — guerrillas on one side and government death squads on the other — were indiscriminately killing people caught in the middle.
Hilda fled the horrors of violence in Central America and entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant. Once here, Hilda's limited options included a job in the meatpacking plant. She regularly worked 16-hour double-shifts, using what strength she had in her 4-foot, 10-inch frame to cut sides of beef on a band saw. That had been Hilda's life since she was 13 years old.
She was working when the plant was raided in May 2008. Nearly 400 workers, including Hilda, were detained. At just 16, she was slated to be deported. Hilda was afraid that she would never see her mother again. She was afraid of the violence that awaited her in Guatemala. I wanted to tell her in my broken Spanish that everything was going to be OK. But I couldn't. As a civil-rights organizer I witnessed in shame as the judge presided over federal prosecutors and public defenders, as the system processed the men, women, and the young boys and girls picked up in Postville with cruelly inhumane efficiency. I watched the courts deport people as fast as they could, tearing families and communities apart. All I could do was try to make sure Hilda's story was heard, by the courts and by anyone who cared to listen.