For two weeks in May, Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Spanish interpreter with 23 years of experience and federal court certification, worked nearly round the clock as a translator for almost 400 illegal immigrants snatched in a raid on an Iowa meatpacking plant. His firsthand account describes in shocking detail how prosecutors trampled the immigrants' right to due process and made a mockery of justice.
The immigrants, wrote Camayd-Freixas, a professor of Spanish at Florida International University, were charged with serious criminal offenses instead of civil immigration offenses. The harsh, mandatory sentences for the offenses railroaded the immigrants, many Guatemalan peasants illiterate in English and Spanish, into pleading guilty to crimes they could not have been guilty of.
Many of the illegal workers, the translator said, simply did not understand the charges against them or the rights they had waived. Making matters worse, the speed of the proceedings, volume of cases and circumstances of the makeshift court facilities prevented defense attorneys from engaging in private discussion with their clients.
No matter how fed up some Americans have become with the number of undocumented foreigners who illegally cross U.S. borders in search of work, such blatant trampling of everyone's right to due process is unacceptable. When the government can disregard the Constitution, it is as much a danger to American citizens as it is to powerless Latin American peasants caught up in a federal immigration dragnet.
Americans have faced similar situations. Texans need only consider how hundreds of children belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints were removed from their homes and placed in state custody. Their parents were afforded only chaotic and perfunctory hearings in a massive group setting proceedings that were widely criticized for their failure to consider each person's case separately and observe due process.
In the Iowa case, 390 immigrants were arrested by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. Instead of deporting the illegal workers as usual, the government charged 306 with aggravated identity theft and Social Security fraud.
As one of 26 interpreters, Camayd-Freixas had a front-row seat to the farce. Each of the 18 defense attorneys brought in represented around 17 clients, who made their initial court appearances in assemby-line fashion: groups of 10 at a time, chained together and shackled at the wrists, waist and legs. The attorneys were rushed by prosecutors working to beat a 72-hour habeas corpus deadline after which criminal charges would be dropped and detainees immediately deported. The handful of immigrants that missed the deadline and were deported home turned out to be the fortunate few.
The rest were offered grim options:
Plead not guilty, be denied bail, wait up to eight months for trial and risk a two-year minimum sentence on the more serious charge. Those acquitted would be immediately deported.
Plead guilty to knowingly using a false Social Security number, spend five months in prison, then be deported without a hearing in exchange for the government dropping the more serious identity theft charge.
It wasn't much of a choice and many clearly were not guilty. Unable to read or write in any language, these Guatemalans could not have filled out the fraudulent paperwork, which was done by a company employee. Many didn't know what a Social Security number was and couldn't distinguish a Social Security card from a "green card," the legal residency document. They hadn't used the number to commit a felony cited under the law, such as obtaining credit in another's name or using it to steal money or property. They'd used it to be able to work.
Many told stories of being the sole support of their American-born children or feeble parents back home. Some of the Guatemalans, Camayd-Freixas suspected, might have had valid asylum claims based on that country's horrid human rights record. At least one immigrant had an application for a change of legal status pending. In accepting the guilty plea that would return him most quickly to his family, he lost all hope of eventually being allowed to remain legally in the country. Immigration lawyers who could have advised the defendants on such matters were barred from the proceedings.
"Deporting unauthorized workers is one thing," wrote Camayd-Freixas. "Sending desperate breadwinners to prison, and their families deeper into poverty, is another."
The Chronicle's editorial board agrees.
These workers broke U.S. immigration laws and should have been dealt with accordingly. Instead, the government came down on them with a hammer, trumping up charges that forced innocent people into pleading guilty. Many of the immigrants begged to be deported so they could find some other means to provide for their impoverished loved ones. They took the government's offer not because they were guilty, but to avoid a long stretch in jail before trial and the possibility of a lengthy sentence should they be found guilty. No matter what, all would be eventually deported.
In this case the executive branch made the judicial branch a rubber stamp, depriving judges brought in of the authority to use their judgment in dealing with individual cases. It made a mockery of American values of fairness and the right of every defendant to have his case heard on its merits.
It's an example of American "justice" at its shameful worst.