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Railroad Justice

New America Media, Commentary, Kathleen Campbell Walker, Esq. Posted: Jul 31, 2008

Editors Note On July 24, 2008, the House Judiciary Committees Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law held a hearing titled Immigration Raids: Postville and Beyond. The oversight hearing addressed the range of due process violations and sleight-of-hand procedures used by DHS and the Department of Justice to transform undocumented workers into identity theft criminals and in essence implement railroad justice, using the threat of long jail sentences to coerce undocumented workers into taking deportation orders as the path of least resistance. Kathleen Campbell Walker, Esq, is the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Immigration Matters regularly features the views of the nation's leading immigrant rights advocates.

Federal immigration officials swept into Postville, Iowa on May 12 and detained nearly 400 workers at a kosher meat processing plant. Showcasing alacrity and coordination never encountered in the provision of immigration services, the government 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 prevent debris from accumulating on the track that might slow the train, court appointed attorneys were required to represent groups of 10-20 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 was subsequently quoted in the national press as saying 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 7 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 5-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's shiny new engine 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 are a travesty of justice and have no place in a constitutional democracy. Immigrants, even those working without documentation, deserve their day in court, not a 5-minute ride on a judicial cattle car that compromises the integrity of our system.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association is the national association of immigration lawyers established to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members.

This op-ed appears courtesy of The American Forum

Related Articles:

Interpreting the Largest ICE Raid in U.S. History: A Personal Account

After Iowa Raid, Families in Limbo

Rush to Prosecute Leaves Immigrant Victims of Crimes Without Protection

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