Monday, July 14, 2008

What happened at Postville


There is nothing obscure about this document -- I downloaded it from a link [pdf] within a New York Times editorial. I offer excerpts here so that a few more of us cannot claim we do not know this is happening.

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 illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names, some being relatives (various Tajtaj, Xicay, Sajché, Sologüí...), some in tears; others with faces of worry, fear, and embarrassment. 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.

The author of this account, Erik Camayd-Freixas, has served for 23 years as a certified Spanish interpreter for federal courts. He teaches interpretation at Florida International University. In May he was called upon to translate in proceedings subsequent to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on Agriprocessors Inc, the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant located in the town of Postville, Iowa. The raid rocked the town of some 2300.

At the local high school, only three of the 15 Latino students came back on Tuesday, while at the elementary and middle school, 120 of the 363 children were absent. In the following days the principal went around town on the school bus and gathered 70 students after convincing the parents to let them come back to school; 50 remained unaccounted for. Some American parents complained that their children were traumatized by the sudden disappearance of so many of their school friends. The principal reported the same reaction in the classrooms, saying that for the children it was as if ten of their classmates had suddenly died.

Because what he participated in seemed such a mockery of justice clothed in the appearance of legality, he chose to make public a 14 page account of what happened in Postville.

Later in the day, three groups of women were brought, shackled in the same manner. One of them, whose husband was also arrested, was released to care for her children, ages two and five, uncertain of their whereabouts. Several men and women were weeping, but two women were particularly grief stricken. One of them was sobbing and would repeatedly struggle to bring a sleeve to her nose, but her wrists shackled around her waist simply would not reach; so she just dripped until she was taken away with the rest. The other one, a Ukrainian woman, was held and arraigned separately when a Russian telephonic interpreter came on. She spoke softly into a cellular phone, while the interpreter told her story in English over the speakerphone. Her young daughter, gravely ill, had lost her hair and was too weak to walk. She had taken her to Moscow and Kiev but to no avail. She was told her child needed an operation or would soon die. She had come to America to work and raise the money to save her daughter back in Ukraine.

The workers picked up in the raid were indeed undocumented. Many had bought false Social Security cards from unscrupulous fixers in the U.S. If they were lucky, the numbers were just made up. But nearly 300 were unlucky enough to be using numbers that belonged to someone else. They were charged with felony identity theft and got the full treatment.

The client, a Guatemalan peasant afraid for his family, spent most of that time weeping at our table, in a corner of the crowded jailhouse visiting room. How did he come here from Guatemala? "I walked." What? "I walked for a month and ten days until I crossed the river." We understood immediately how desperate his family's situation was. He crossed alone, met other immigrants, and hitched a truck ride to Dallas, then Postville, where he heard there was sure work. He slept in an apartment hallway with other immigrants until employed. He had scarcely been working a couple of months when he was arrested. Maybe he was lucky: another man who began that Monday had only been working for 20 minutes.

The identity theft charges were a hammer that forced the arrested workers to plea down to 5 month jail sentences. The charges would not have held up if they had fought them as no actual theft was intended or performed. But fighting the charges would have meant waiting around in jail for 2 years while their families starved.

"Knowingly" and "intent" are necessary elements of the charges, but most of the clients we interviewed did not even know what a Social Security number was or what purpose it served. This worker simply had the papers filled out for him at the plant, since he could not read or write Spanish, let alone English. But the lawyer still had to advise him that pleading guilty was in his best interest. He was unable to make a decision. "You all do and undo," he said. "So you can do whatever you want with me." To him we were part of the system keeping him from being deported back to his country, where his children, wife, mother, and sister depended on him. He was their sole support and did not know how they were going to make it with him in jail for 5 months. None of the "options" really mattered to him. Caught between despair and hopelessness, he just wept. He had failed his family, and was devastated. I went for some napkins, but he refused them. I offered him a cup of soda, which he superstitiously declined, saying it could be "poisoned." His Native American spirit was broken and he could no longer think.

Even the judges were trapped into confirming injustice.

It works like this. By handing down the inflated charge of "aggravated identity theft," which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 2 years in prison, the government forced the defendants into pleading guilty to the lesser charge and accepting 5 months in jail. Clearly, without the inflated charge, the government had no bargaining leverage, because the lesser charge by itself, using a false Social Security number, carries only a discretionary sentence of 0- 6 months. The judges would be free to impose sentence within those guidelines, depending on the circumstances of each case and any prior record. Virtually all the defendants would have received only probation and been immediately deported. In fact, the government's offer at the higher end of the guidelines (one month shy of the maximum sentence) was indeed no bargain. What is worse, the inflated charge, via the binding 11(C)(1)(c) Plea Agreement, reduced the judges to mere bureaucrats, pronouncing the same litany over and over for the record in order to legalize the proceedings, but having absolutely no discretion or decision-making power.

All the arrested worker knew was that they had been caught up in a cruel web of punishment. Neither they nor their lawyers had any wiggle room. Effectively, ICE legal tactics made undocumented work itself a crime, though no statute does this.

But with the promise of faster deportation, their ignorance of the legal system, and the limited opportunity to consult with counsel before arraignment, all the workers, without exception, were led to waive their 5th Amendment right to grand jury indictment on felony charges. Waiting for a grand jury meant months in jail on an immigration detainer, without the possibility of bail. So the attorneys could not recommend it as a defense strategy. Similarly, defendants have the right to a status hearing before a judge, to determine probable cause, within ten days of arraignment, but their Plea Agreement offer from the government was only good for seven days. Passing it up, meant risking 2 years in jail. As a result, the frivolous charge of identity theft was assured never to undergo the judicial test of probable cause. Not only were defendants and judges bound to accept the Plea Agreement, there was also absolutely no defense strategy available to counsel. Once the inflated charge was handed down, all the pieces fell into place like a row of dominoes.

Why this determination from ICE to make undocumented labor a crime? Can you say the survival instinct of a burgeoning bureaucratic police force?

Never before has illegal immigration been criminalized in this fashion. It is no longer enough to deport them: we first have to put them in chains. At first sight it may seem absurd to take productive workers and keep them in jail at taxpayers' expense. But the economics and politics of the matter are quite different from such rational assumptions. ... ICE is under enormous pressure to turn out statistical figures that might justify a fair utilization of its capabilities, resources, and ballooning budget. For example, the Report boasts 102,777 cases "eliminated" from the fugitive alien population in FY07, "quadrupling" the previous year's number, only to admit a page later that 73,284 were "resolved" by simply "taking those cases off the books" after determining that they "no longer met the definition of an ICE fugitive" (4-5). De facto, the rationale is: we have the excess capability; we are already paying for it; ergo, use it we must.

Erik Camayd-Freixas believes he saw an early battle in a "New War" -- the merger of the "war on terror" with a "war on migrants," all lawless, all profoundly anti-democratic.

Furthermore, by virtue of its magnitude and methods, ICE's New War is unabashedly the aggressive deployment of its own brand of immigration reform, without congressional approval. "In FY07, as the debate over comprehensive immigration reform moved to the forefront of the national stage, ICE expanded upon the ongoing effort to re-invent immigration enforcement for the 21st century" (3). In recent years, DHS has repeatedly been accused of overstepping its authority. The reply is always the same: if we limit what DHS/ICE can do, we have to accept a greater risk of terrorism. Thus, by painting the war on immigration as inseparable from the war on terror, the same expediency would supposedly apply to both. Yet, only for ICE are these agendas codependent: the war on immigration depends politically on the war on terror, which, as we saw earlier, depends economically on the war on immigration. This type of no-exit circular thinking is commonly known as a "doctrine." In this case, it is an undemocratic doctrine of expediency, at the core of a police agency, whose power hinges on its ability to capitalize on public fear. Opportunistically raised by DHS, the sad specter of 9/11 has come back to haunt illegal workers and their local communities across the USA.

Those of us who are citizens need to decide if we'll tolerate such a republic of fear.

1 comment:

kyledeb said...

Great Post. Email me at kyle at citizenorange dot com. Definitely would like to speak to you further about pro-migrant blogging.

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