By Kathleen Walker
Federal immigration officials swept into Postville, Iowa in May and detained nearly 400 workers at a kosher meat processing plant. Swiftly, local enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency arrested, charged with crimes, extracted pleas, and sentenced 297 of these individuals by the end of the following week. Apparently, this shock and awe strategy was specially designed to drop the hammer on undocumented workers doing backbreaking jobs under reportedly sub-optimal conditions.
This new high-speed judicial railroad required extensive planning and coordination between the U.S. Attorneys’ office in Iowa, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Judiciary. The tracks laid down to carry this new enforcement train were designed to force rapid guilty pleas under the threat of serious jail time, avoid the inconvenience of trials, limit access to immigration counsel, eliminate the prospect of all future relief, and impose criminal sentences and removal orders simultaneously. To speed the process up, the court appointed attorneys were required to represent groups of 10 to 20 or more individuals, and more than 90 individuals were processed by the court in a single day.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association wrote to the U.S. District Judge who apparently authorized these expedited procedures, Chief Judge Linda R. Reade, expressing our deep concerns with the process. Chief Judge Reade subsequently said that “the immigration lawyers do not understand the federal criminal process as it relates to immigration charges.” It would be hard to overstate our respectful disagreement with that assertion.
It is precisely because immigration lawyers understand the complexity of the interplay between immigration law and criminal charges that we have recoiled so forcefully at this new approach. Leveraging excessive criminal charges through an exploding plea bargain (sign the deal within seven days of arrest or face max prosecution) to secure jail time and forfeiture of all possible immigration relief, shows an utter disregard for that very complexity.
The nearly 300 individuals subjected to this process who reportedly pled guilty to the use of false documents (in order to work, mind you) in exchange for five-month prison terms and deportation were neither adequately screened, nor advised of their rights under U.S. immigration law. Some may have derivative U.S. citizenship claims. Others may have legitimate fears of persecution or torture in their home country. Still others may be eligible for visas as witnesses to crimes that may have been committed by their employer. Many are ethnic Mayan Guatemalans for whom Spanish is a second language and who signed agreements without any Mayan interpretation. In the interest of government efficiency, however, these individuals were denied access to the experts needed to help them make informed judgments about whether pleading guilty was in their best interest.
With the “government” bearing down hard and fast, these folks did just what the engineers of this new machine intended, they got on board and signed away their life in this country. The court proceedings in Iowa were a travesty of justice and have no place in a constitutional democracy. Immigrants, even those working without documentation, deserved their day in court, not a five-minute ride on a judicial cattle car that compromises the integrity of our system.
Walker is the immediate past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.