I did a double take when I saw this article. The May 12 Agriprocessors immigration raid, the largest single site raid in U.S. history, has certainly come under a lot of scrutiny in the past couple of weeks. Stories of abusive and dangerous working conditions at the plant continue to surface. And of course, there’s the symbolism of rounding the immigrants up and “processing” them at the National Cattle Congress grounds in Iowa.
But this really takes the cake. How can it be that 270 immigrants were raided, arrested, prosecuted in a makeshift federal court (on the Cattle grounds, naturally), and sentenced to five months in federal prison…all in a 12 day period?
WATERLOO, Iowa — In temporary courtrooms at a fairgrounds here, 270 illegal immigrants were sentenced this week to five months in prison for working at a meatpacking plant with false documents.
The prosecutions, which ended Friday, signal a sharp escalation in the Bush administration’s crackdown on illegal workers, with prosecutors bringing tough federal criminal charges against most of the immigrants arrested in a May 12 raid. Until now, unauthorized workers have generally been detained by immigration officials for civil violations and rapidly deported.
The convicted immigrants were among 389 workers detained at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in nearby Postville in a raid that federal officials called the largest criminal enforcement operation ever carried out by immigration authorities at a workplace. […]
The unusually swift proceedings, in which 297 immigrants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in four days, were criticized by criminal defense lawyers, who warned of violations of due process. Twenty-seven immigrants received probation. The American Immigration Lawyers Association protested that the workers had been denied meetings with immigration lawyers and that their claims under immigration law had been swept aside in unusual and speedy plea agreements.
The illegal immigrants, most from Guatemala, filed into the courtrooms in groups of 10, their hands and feet shackled. One by one, they entered guilty pleas through a Spanish interpreter, admitting they had taken jobs using fraudulent Social Security cards or immigration documents. Moments later, they moved to another courtroom for sentencing.
The pleas were part of a deal worked out with prosecutors to avoid even more serious charges. Most immigrants agreed to immediate deportation after they serve five months in prison…If the immigrants did not plead guilty, Mr. Dummermuth said he would try them on felony identity theft charges that carry a mandatory two-year minimum jail sentence. In many cases, court documents show, the immigrants were working under real Social Security numbers or immigration visas, known as green cards, that belonged to other people.
So if the immigrants even tried to defend themselves, they were threatened with a minimum of two years in prison? How is that justice? How is that constitutional?
All but a handful of the workers here had no criminal record, court documents showed.
“My family is worried in Guatemala,” one defendant, Erick Tajtaj, entreated the federal district judge who sentenced him, Mark W. Bennett. “I ask that you deport us as soon as possible, that you do us that kindness so we can be together again with our families.”
No charges have been brought against managers or owners at Agriprocessors, but there were indications that prosecutors were also preparing a case against the company. In pleading guilty, immigrants had to agree to cooperate with any investigation. […]
Since 2004, the plant has faced repeated sanctions for environmental and worker safety violations. It was the focus of a 2006 exposé in The Jewish Daily Forward and a commission of inquiry that year by Conservative Jewish leaders.
In Postville, workers from the plant, still feeling aftershocks from the raid, said conditions there were often harsh. In interviews, they said they were often required to work overtime and night shifts, sometimes up to 14 hours a day, but were not consistently paid for the overtime. […]
Robert Rigg, a Drake University law professor who is president of the Iowa Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said his group was not consulted when prosecutors and court officials began to make plans, starting in December, for the mass proceedings.
“You really are force feeding the system just to churn these people out,” Mr. Rigg said.
Kathleen Campbell Walker, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that intricate issues could arise in some cases, for example where immigrants had children and spouses who were legal residents or United States citizens. Those issues “could not be even cursorily addressed in the time frame being forced upon these individuals and their overburdened counsel.”
Linda R. Reade, the chief judge who approved the emergency court setup, said she was confident there had been no rush to justice. In an interview, Judge Reade said prosecutors had organized the immigrants’ detention to make it easy for their lawyers to meet with them. The prosecutors, she said, “have tried to be fair in their charging.”
The immigration lawyers, Judge Reade said, “do not understand the federal criminal process as it relates to immigration charges.” [emphasis added]
As Economist’s View pointed out, how can Judge Reade deem these proceedings fair if the immigration lawyers didn’t “understand the federal criminal process as it relates to immigration charges”?
How can the immigrants’ lawyers possibly prepare for the trials of almost 300 individuals (with 300 different backgrounds and circumstances) in less than twelve days?
Many immigrants already don’t go to the police when confronted with violence/crime due to fear that they’ll be deported. Do you really think they’ll try to appeal this gross violation of due process when confronted with two years in prison on top of imminent deportation?
Why did the Bush administration choose to do this now in their lame duck period?
The article also points out that the planning for these proceedings started back in December. They didn’t know the exact identities of the people they would be arresting in the raid, they didn’t know each individual’s circumstances, and yet they knew they’d be doing enough sentencing to warrant setting up a sentencing court to process all these people on the same day as their trial? That doesn’t sound very “innocent until proven guilty,” huh?
This was never going to be fair from the start. It’s not even “guilty until proven innocent,” because the immigrants were silenced with the threat of two year imprisonment.
What the hell is wrong with this country?