As we recently posted, following the ICE raid at the meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa, immigrant workers were herded into kangaroo style hearings where they were railroaded into pleading guilty to criminal offenses. A courageous interpreter, Erik Camayd-Freixas, came forward and exposed the lack of any semblance of due process in these summary proceedings. From Dr. Camayd-Freixas account:
On Monday, May 12, 2008, at 10:00 a.m., in an operation involving some 900 agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) executed a raid of agriprocessors Inc, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant located in the town of Postville, Iowa. The raid –officials boasted– was “the largest single-site operation of its kind in American history.” At that same hour, 26 federally certified interpreters from all over the country were en route to the small neighboring city of Waterloo, Iowa, having no idea what their mission was about. The investigation had started more than a year earlier. Raid preparations had begun in December. The Clerk’s Office of the U.S. District Court had contracted the interpreters a month ahead, but was not at liberty to tell us the whole truth, lest the impending raid be compromised. The operation was led by ICE, which belongs to the executive branch, whereas the U.S. District Court, belonging to the judicial branch, had to formulate its own official reason for participating. Accordingly, the Court had to move for two weeks to a remote location as part of a “Continuity of Operation exercise” in case they were ever disrupted by an emergency, which in Iowa is likely to be a tornado or flood. That is what we were told, but, frankly, I was not prepared for a disaster of such a different kind, one which was entirely man-made.
Echoing what I think was the general feeling, one of my fellow interpreters would later xclaim: “When I saw what it was really about, my heart sank…” Then began the saddest procession I have ever witnessed, which the public would never see, because cameras were not allowed past the perimeter of the compound (only a few journalists came to court the following days, notepad in hand). Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10. They appeared to be uniformly no more than 5 ft. tall, mostly lliterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names, some being relatives (various Tajtaj, Xicay, Sajché, Sologüí…), some in tears; others with faces of worry, fear, and mbarrassment. They all spoke Spanish, a few rather laboriously. It dawned on me that, aside from their Guatemalan or Mexican nationality, which was imposed on their people after Independence, they too were Native Americans, in shackles. They stood out in stark racial contrast with the rest of us as they started their slow penguin march across the makeshift court. Sad spectacle” I heard a colleague say, reading my mind. They had all waived their right to be indicted by a grand jury and accepted instead an information or simple charging document by the U.S. Attorney, hoping to be quickly deported since they had families to support back home. But it was not to be. They were criminally charged with “aggravated identity theft” and “Social Security fraud” —charges they did not understand… and, frankly, neither could I. Everyone wondered how it would all play out.
“The saddest procession I have every witnessed,” strong words from an interpreter who regularly translates for the so-called Department of Justice and has seen his share of tragedies. From the New York Times editorial of July 13, 2008:
Anyone who has doubts that this country is abusing and terrorizing undocumented immigrant workers should read an essay by Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor and Spanish-language court interpreter who witnessed the aftermath of a huge immigration workplace raid at a meatpacking plant in Iowa.
The essay chillingly describes what Dr. Camayd-Freixas saw and heard as he translated for some of the nearly 400 undocumented workers who were seized by federal agents at the Agriprocessors kosher plant in Postville in May.
Under the old way of doing things, the workers, nearly all Guatemalans, would have been simply and swiftly deported. But in a twist of Dickensian cruelty, more than 260 were charged as serious criminals for using false Social Security numbers or residency papers, and most were sentenced to five months in prison.
What is worse, Dr. Camayd-Freixas wrote, is that the system was clearly rigged for the wholesale imposition of mass guilt. He said the court-appointed lawyers had little time in the raids’ hectic aftermath to meet with the workers, many of whom ended up waiving their rights and seemed not to understand the complicated charges against them.
Dr. Camayd-Freixas’s essay describes “the saddest procession I have ever witnessed, which the public would never see” — because cameras were forbidden.
“Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10.”
He wrote that they had waived their rights in hopes of being quickly deported, “since they had families to support back home.” He said that they did not understand the charges they faced, adding, “and, frankly, neither could I.”
No one is denying that the workers were on the wrong side of the law. But there is a profound difference between stealing people’s identities to rob them of money and property, and using false papers to merely get a job. It is a distinction that the Bush administration, goaded by immigration extremists, has willfully ignored. Deporting unauthorized workers is one thing; sending desperate breadwinners to prison, and their families deeper into poverty, is another.
Court interpreters are normally impartial participants and keep their opinions to themselves. But Dr. Camayd-Freixas, a professor of Spanish at Florida International University, said he was so offended by the cruelty of the prosecutions that he felt compelled to break his silence. “A line was crossed at Postville,” he wrote.
And so another sad chapter is written in this administration’s contemptuous view towards the rule of law and the rights of human beings. Shame! Shame! Shame! Contemptible bastards: ICE, Justice and the U.S. Attorney.