David Vasquez
David Vasquez
"A person's a person no matter how small."

Tears streamed down David Vasquez's face as he recited this line from Dr. Seuss's "Horton Hears a Who!" while reading the book to his son one night before bedtime.

He couldn't believe how such a simple story with such a simple message could sum up what he and others have been trying to get across to the nation for the past two-and-a-half months.

A native of Guatemala, Vasquez, the campus pastor at Luther College, has spent his entire summer helping immigrant families whose lives were "shattered" by the May 12 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors Inc. meatpacking plant in Postville.

The raid, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, resulted in the controversial detainment and, in some cases, deportation of nearly 400 immigrant workers.

Vasquez is among those who have been fighting for them ever since that fateful day.

On May 12, he and "a handful of others" from Luther went to Postville to help in any way possible.

They were no strangers to the town.

In the months preceding the raid, they had been working to establish a leadership group there to ensure that the "growing community" continued to move in the right direction.

"When we heard about the raid, we were like, 'Oh my God, we gotta go,'" Vasquez said.

They "had no sense of the magnitude of it" as they pulled into town.

"As you walked into Postville it was like a ghost town. There was nobody in the streets. It was just an eerie feeling," Vasquez said.

First he and the others went to the school.

After hearing about the raid, school personnel brought all students with Hispanic names to the auditorium, according to Vasquez.

Although Vasquez had held events in the school auditorium in the past, the scene he saw that day in no way resembled the auditorium he was familiar with.

"The stage was full of crying kids," Vasquez said. "Teachers were guarding the doors, monitoring who went in and out to protect the students."

Following their stop at the school, the group made their way to St. Bridget's Catholic Church.

"Walking into the church was overwhelming. It was a sea of people," Vasquez said. "I've been in other disasters before, and this was like those, but it was worse. It looked like a natural disaster or a war zone."

At the church, Vasquez and the others helped compile a list of people who were missing. This continued through about 5 a.m. the next day.

But the list of missing people was just the beginning. Two-and-a-half months later, Vasquez's work in Postville, although winding down, is not yet finished.

Stationed out of St. Bridget's, he worked there (instead of his Luther office) full-time for the first six weeks after the raid, serving as a representative for the college. He then started working there part-time, which he will continue to do in the immediate future.

In addition to listening to people's stories, Vasquez helps with documentation, needs assessment and political advocacy. He also helps coordinate assistance for all of the detainees currently "trying to make their way through the very complicated immigration process."

Most recently, Vasquez and Luz Maria Hernandez, a Spanish professor at Luther who was also among those who traveled to Postville May 12, worked with the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs and Jewish Community Action to organize an interfaith prayer walk, held July 27.

The event, which called for comprehensive immigration reform, just labor practices and family unity, went beyond simply raising awareness, according to Vasquez. It engaged people in a discussion that many have been having for years.

"I have a deep conviction that if people were to listen to one person's story, they would change their mind about whether (the way in which the immigrant workers were treated) represents their values or not," Vasquez said. "(The event) was intended to prevent us from being ashamed of ourselves 100 years from now."

Unfortunately, not all Postville immigrants affected by the raid participated in the rally.

"Many of them didn't participate because they were still afraid," Vasquez said. "It's just fear, fear, fear. I've spent the summer in a community of fear."

Although not everyone participated, Vasquez considers the interfaith prayer walk a success.

"It got attention," Vasquez said. "The men, women and children who spoke from the affected community did so without fear. They got to tell their story to the world, and that's what it was about."

Vasquez said the event's success was also shown through the words of Postville Mayor Robert Penrod, "who spoke against the raid and affirmed the value of the people who have been part of his town and community and called for them to be back."

"They need to know that not everyone thinks they're criminals and unwanted here," Vasquez said.

But the interfaith prayer walk won't make the town's problems disappear overnight.

Vasquez said Postville will likely have to deal with the aftermath of the raid for the foreseeable future, a grim outlook for what remains of the "stable, family-focused community" that existed there just a few months ago.

"Most people in Postville wanted to live their lives and go about their business," Vasquez said. "They had no desire to be thrust into The New York Times."

But now that they have been, Vasquez hopes the nation will finally realize that it's time to make U.S. immigration laws "reflect current reality."

"I don't think spending billions of dollars chasing immigrants around the country makes sense," Vasquez said. "We should spend that money on reforming immigration" to protect the people our country has depended on for years.

After all, "A person's a person no matter how small."