The U.S. needs to take advantage of having a newly elected president to reform the country's immigration policies, according to Rigoberta Menchu.

The 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala came to Postville Saturday to meet with victims of the May immigration raid at the town's Agriprocessors meat-packing plant, and to identify with their suffering.

"You are my sisters, you are my brothers, you are my people," she told the crowd that gathered at St. Bridget's Catholic Church.

"For many, many years, we didn't know what was going on with Postville, with you. Because of the raid, everything came out. Now for six months everyone is aware - not only here in the U.S. - but all over the world," said Menchu, who spoke both in English and in Spanish, translated by an interpreter.

"They are sensitive about your pain and suffering. Yes, it's been painful what you have been enduring and suffering, but you can become a voice of freedom and liberty for all the pain that others are also enduring," she said. "You can become an example of a fight for a new beginning for immigration laws in the U.S. ... laws that respect human rights."

Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided Agriprocessors May 12 and detained 389 illegal immigrant workers - mainly Mexican and Guatemalans -- in what was one of the largest raids in U.S. history. Many of the Guatemalans are Mayan Indians, like Menchu.

Menchu called for solidarity to deal with the situation. "You need to become one," she said.

Injustice unbelievable

What's happened in Postville should not be tolerated, Menchu said.

"So many things have happened that are questionable. The injustice is unbelievable. Especially those ankle bracelets - those physical chains they have put on you. They represent oppression and are tampering with your liberty, your freedom."

Several women detained in the raid were released in order to care for their children, but they are required to wear electronic monitoring devices on their ankles. They showed Menchu how the bracelets have scarred them because they become hot when they are plugged in for recharging.

"Sometimes we don't want to charge it because it's painful, but if we don't do it, the immigration officers call and ask what is going on," said one woman.

They said there have been times they have been waiting in line at the local food pantry with Postville residents who tell them, "You are not an American. This food is not for you."

And they said some people look at them like criminals and are repulsed by the ankle bracelets.

Paul Rael, Hispanic Ministries director at St. Bridget's, said he was angered by that and said the food pantry in Postville has received many donations including a large one recently from Hispanic families in Kansas City.

One of the women said she was at the food pantry in Decorah when a couple saw her ankle bracelet and looked at her as though she was a murderer.

"I felt really bad," she said.

The women are banned from working, and said they feel they are incarcerated in their own homes.

"We want to work -- to get rid of these ankle bracelets," said a Mexican immigrant and mother of two, who said she and the other mothers must now rely on charity from St. Bridget's.

"They feel like birds with broken wings. They know they can fly, but aren't able to," said the interpreter, translating for the women.

Another woman from Guatemala recalled how she tried to hide the day of the raid, and that the workers were "treated like animals" when they were found by immigration officials.

A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy, who said he came to Postville last year seeking "a better life," described the shackles he was placed in when he was detained during the raid. The chains were so short, he said it was difficult to walk and to get on the bus that took them to the Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo, where he and the other detainees were questioned until midnight.

Jesus Loera also was shackled and taken to Waterloo after the raid. He said Agriprocessors' workers were treated inhumanely and that immigration officials tried to find reasons to charge them as criminals.

"They didn't allow us to sleep - some waited 10 hours to be interrogated," he said.

He learned the agents had a pizza party to celebrate the success of the raid.

"We endured a lot of humiliation from immigration officials. They made jokes about us. We had to eat wearing shackles and wear the same clothes over and over. It was very sad, because we just came here to work," Loera said.

He was sentenced to five months on an identity theft charge and spent time in four different jails after signing papers he didn't understand. Before entering each jail, Loera was subjected to a body search and a search of his belongings.

"Each time I was treated like a criminal. I ask you, when has trying to feed your family become a crime?" he said.

One woman told Menchu the workers were not aware the false immigration papers they purchased contained Social Security numbers belonging to someone else. Hundreds of workers were charged with identity theft.

Scarred his heart

Thirteen-year-old Pedro Arturo Lopez said he was in school the day of the raid. His mother was working at the plant and was arrested, jailed and deported.

"That day scarred my heart," said Lopez, who began telling his story to Menchu in English, but switched to Spanish as he became upset recalling the events following the raid.

When he and his siblings were rushed home that day, their father instructed them to stay out of sight of the helicopters hovering over the town during the raid. They hid in their basement for a week.

His mother originally was held in a jail in Georgia with murderers and thieves, Lopez said.

"That hit me and I started to cry right away," he said.

Violeta Aleman, St. Bridget's Hispanic Ministries director's assistant, said the abuses started before the raid, with Agriprocessors hiring minors and most employees working a minimum of 14 hours a day. Female employees were subjected to sexual harassment, she said.

"These people were exploited," she said.

Aleman said there were two sides to the "crime" - the workers and the owners of the plant who knew the workers had fake papers in order to work there. But while the workers were separated from their families and jailed for five months, unable to defend themselves, the plant owners were treated differently.

She referred to an Agriprocessors executive charged with conspiring to hire undocumented workers who was able to meet a $500,000 minimum-security bond and hasn't spent one day in jail.

"It's an example of what injustice and money does in the wrong hands," she said.

Menchu pledged to report the painful ankle bracelets the former Agriprocessors workers must wear to human rights activists. She also plans to talk to President-Elect Barack Obama.