Friday, July 11, 2008

Criminal Proceedings in Agriprocessors Raid in Postville, Iowa

On May 12th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided the Kosher meat-packing plant in Postville Iowa, detaining approximately 400 undocumented immigrants. Since then controversy has swirled around the raid and its aftermath. New America Media is reporting that “[n]o fewer than seven federal and state agencies are coordinating on investigations of Agriprocessors.”

According to lawyers in the case and agency representatives, there are likely to be civil charges related to immigration, wage enforcement, safety and other labor issues which usually result in fines, however, criminal charges related to immigration, child labor and sexual harassment and assault are far more serious and potentially wide reaching. Anyone with “knowledge or intent” of child laborers for instance is subject to criminal prosecution — in theory this could include management, human resources representatives and owners alike.

“ICE knows this case is huge,” said Sonia Parras Konrad, an attorney representing many of the women and children detained in the raids. “This is not about a few undocumented jumping the fence, this is about the ongoing crimes and abuses that these people endured. This will be a real showcase of what can go wrong without a real comprehensive solution to immigration.”

In contrast, The New York Times is reporting that a translator used during the raids has become a whistleblower in what appear to be railroading of immigrants who have been forced to plead guilty to criminal charges. Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor of Spanish at Florida International University, and an interpreter for the Federal Courts, has taken the unusual step of breaking the code of confidentiality among legal interpreters.

In a 14-page essay he circulated among two dozen other interpreters who worked here, Professor Camayd-Freixas wrote that the immigrant defendants whose words he translated, most of them villagers from Guatemala, did not fully understand the criminal charges they were facing or the rights most of them had waived.

In the essay and an interview, Professor Camayd-Freixas said he was taken aback by the rapid pace of the proceedings and the pressure prosecutors brought to bear on the defendants and their lawyers by pressing criminal charges instead of deporting the workers immediately for immigration violations.

He said defense lawyers had little time or privacy to meet with their court-assigned clients in the first hectic days after the raid. Most of the Guatemalans could not read or write, he said. Most did not understand that they were in criminal court.

“The questions they asked showed they did not understand what was going on,” Professor Camayd-Freixas said in the interview. “The great majority were under the impression they were there because of being illegal in the country, not because of Social Security fraud.”

So it appears that for the immigrants caught up in the raid it is a lose-lose proposition. ICE could easily deport the workers, who are unlikely to make a return, given the hardships involved in emigrating from Central America. Instead, ICE wants to score a PR coup by convicting as many workers as possible of crimes such as Social Security fraud (albeit who this harms is questionable given that they are contributing money to the Social Security fund that they will never see). Nothing like shooting fish in a barrel.

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