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

New America Media, Commentary, Erik Camayd-Freixas, Ph.D. Posted: Jul 11, 2008

Editor's Note: A Spanish-language interpreter in Postville, Iowa battled with his own ethical decisions about how to stay neutral during the largest single-site raid in U.S. history. He says nothing could have prepared him for the prospect of helping our government put hundreds of innocent people in jail.

Listen to Erik Camayd-Freixas speak to UpFront's Sandip Roy about his experience.


POSTVILLE, Iowa -- On Monday, May 12, 2008, at 10:00 a.m., in an operation involving some 900 agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) executed a raid of Agriprocessors, Inc., the nations largest kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant located in the town of Postville, Iowa. The raid officials boasted was the largest single-site operation of its kind in American history. At that same hour, 26 federally certified interpreters from all over the country were en route to the small neighboring city of Waterloo, Iowa, having no idea what their mission was.

The investigation had started more than a year earlier. Raid preparations had begun in December. The Clerks Office of the U.S. District Court had contracted the interpreters a month ahead, but was not at liberty to tell us the whole truth, lest the impending raid be compromised. The operation was led by ICE, which belongs to the executive branch, whereas the U.S. District Court, belonging to the judicial branch, had to formulate its own official reason for participating. Accordingly, the Court had to move for two weeks to a remote location as part of a Continuity of Operation Exercise in case they were ever disrupted by an emergency, which in Iowa is likely to be a tornado or flood. That is what we were told, but, frankly, I was not prepared for a disaster of such a different kind, one that was entirely man-made.

I arrived late that Monday night and missed the 8 p.m. interpreters briefing. I was instructed by phone to meet at 7 a.m. in the hotel lobby and carpool to the National Cattle Congress (NCC) where we would begin our work. We arrived at the heavily guarded compound, went through security, and gathered inside the retro Electric Park Ballroom where a makeshift court had been set up. The Clerk of Court, who coordinated the interpreters, said, Have you seen the news? There was an immigration raid yesterday at 10 a.m. They have some 400 detainees here. Well be working late conducting initial appearances for the next few days.
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.
He then gave us a cursory tour of the compound. The NCC is a 60-acre cattle fairground that had been transformed into a sort of concentration camp or detention center. Fenced in behind the ballroom/courtroom were 23 trailers from federal authorities, including two set up as sentencing courts; various Homeland Security buses and an incident response truck; scores of ICE agents and U.S. Marshals; and in the background two large buildings: a pavilion where agents and prosecutors had established a command center; and a gymnasium filled with tight rows of cots where some 300 male detainees were kept, the women being housed in county jails. Later the NCC board complained to the local newspaper that they had been misled by the government when they leased the grounds purportedly for Homeland Security training.

Echoing what I think was the general feeling, one of my fellow interpreters would later exclaim, When I saw what it was really about, my heart sank.

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, notepads 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. They 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 five feet tall, mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names (Tajtaj, Xicay, Sajch, Solog). Some were in tears; others had faces of worry, fear, and embarrassment. They all spoke Spanish, a few rather laboriously. It dawned on me that, aside from their nationality, which was imposed on their people in the 19th century, 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. Sad spectacle, I heard a colleague say, reading my mind. They had all waived their right to be indicted by a grand jury and accepted instead an information or simple charging document by the U.S. Attorney, hoping to be quickly deported since they had families to support back home. But it was not to be. They were criminally charged with aggravated identity theft and Social Security fraud charges they did not understand. And, frankly, neither did I. Everyone wondered how it would all play out.

We got off to a slow start that first day, because ICEs barcode booking system malfunctioned, and the documents had to be manually sorted and processed with the help of the U.S. Attorneys Office. Consequently, less than a third of the detainees were ready for arraignment that Tuesday. There were more than enough interpreters at that point, so we rotated in shifts of three interpreters per hearing. Court adjourned shortly after 4 p.m. However, the prosecution worked overnight, planning on a 7 a.m. to midnight court marathon the next day.

I was eager to get back to my hotel room to find out more about the case. The days repetitive hearings afforded little information, and everyone there was mostly refraining from comment. There was frequent but sketchy news on local TV. A colleague had suggested The Des Moines Register. So I went to DesMoinesRegister.com and started reading all of the 20-plus articles, as they appeared each day, and the 57-page ICE Search Warrant Application.

These were the vital statistics. Of Agriprocessors 968 current employees, about 75 percent were illegal immigrants. There were 697 arrest warrants, but late-shift workers had not arrived, so only 390 were arrested: 314 men and 76 women, 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, four Ukrainians, and three Israelis who were not seen in court. Some were released on humanitarian grounds: 56 people who were mostly mothers with unattended children, a few for medical reasons, and 12 juveniles were temporarily released with ankle monitors or directly turned over for deportation. In all, 306 were held for prosecution. Only five of the 390 originally arrested had any kind of prior criminal record. There remained 307 outstanding warrants.
American children were having nightmares that their parents too were being taken away.
This was the immediate collateral damage. Postville, Iowa (pop. 2,273), where nearly half of the people worked at Agriprocessors, had lost one third of its population by Tuesday morning. Businesses were empty, amid looming concerns that if the plant closed it would become a ghost town. Besides those arrested, many had fled the town in fear. Several families had taken refuge at St. Bridgets Catholic Church, terrified, sleeping on pews and refusing to leave for days. Volunteers from the community served food and organized activities for the children.

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. Counselors were brought in. American children were having nightmares that their parents too were being taken away. The superintendant said the school districts future was unclear: This literally blew our town away.

In some cases both parents were picked up and small children were left behind for up to 72 hours. Typically, the mother would be released on humanitarian grounds with an ankle GPS monitor, pending prosecution and deportation, while the husband took the first turn in serving his prison sentence. Meanwhile the mother would have no income and could not work to provide for her children. Some of the children were born in the United States and are American citizens. Sometimes one parent was a deportable alien while the other was not. Hundreds of families were torn apart by this raid, said a Catholic nun. The humanitarian impact of this raid is obvious to anyone in Postville. The economic impact will soon be evident.

But this was only the surface damage. Alongside the many courageous actions and expressions of humanitarian concern in the true American spirit, the news blogs were filled with snide remarks of racial prejudice and bigotry, poorly disguised beneath an empty rhetoric of misguided patriotism not to mention the insults to anyone who publicly showed compassion, safely hurled from behind a cowardly online nickname. One could feel the moral fabric of society coming apart beneath it all.
Nothing could have prepared me for the prospect of helping our government put hundreds of innocent people in jail.
The more I found out, the more I felt blindsighted into an assignment in which I wanted no part. Even though I understood the rationale for all of the secrecy, I also knew that a contract interpreter had the right to refuse a job that conflicts with his moral intuitions.

But I had been deprived of that opportunity. I was already there, far from home, and holding a half-spent $1,800 plane ticket. So I faced a frustrating dilemma. I seriously considered withdrawing from the assignment for the first time in my 23 years as a federally certified interpreter, citing conflict of interest. In fact, I have both an ethical and contractual obligation to withdraw if a conflict of interest exists that compromises my neutrality. Appended to my contract are the Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts, which states: Interpreters shall disclose any real or perceived conflict of interest and shall not serve in any matter in which they have a conflict of interest.

The question was: Did I have one? At that point there was not enough evidence to make that determination. After all, these are illegal aliens and should be deported no argument there, and hence no conflict. But should they be criminalized and imprisoned? Perhaps, if they committed a crime and were fairly adjudicated. But all of that remained to be seen. In any case, none of it would shake my impartiality or prevent me from faithfully discharging my duties. In all of my years as a court interpreter, I have taken a front-row seat in countless criminal cases ranging from rape, capital murder and mayhem, to terrorism, narcotics and human trafficking. I am not the impressionable kind. Moreover, as a professor of interpreting, I have confronted my students with every possible conflict scenario, or so I thought. The truth is that nothing could have prepared me for the prospect of helping our government put hundreds of innocent people in jail. In my ignorance and disbelief, I reluctantly decided to stay the course and see what happened next.

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