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 nation’s 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 Clerk’s 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. We’ll 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, Sajché, Sologüí). 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 ICE’s barcode booking system malfunctioned, and the documents had to be manually sorted and processed with the help of the U.S. Attorney’s 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 day’s 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 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. Bridget’s 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 district’s 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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User Comments

dave on Aug 08, 2008 at 11:58:26 said:

kijafha says:"Bullsh** Dave. Bullsh**."

Is that just the way you greet people?

Calling Bullsh** on something doesn't hold any weight unless you can present reasons.

If it's just a greeting, well then Bullsh** kijafha. Bullsh** to you!

sofia corona on Aug 07, 2008 at 16:28:37 said:

the memory haunts and formenta revolution

kijafha on Aug 07, 2008 at 12:20:27 said:

Bullsh** Dave. Bullsh**.

Ana on Jul 20, 2008 at 13:57:13 said:

Laws can be changed to give all undocumented workers documents, that's what the anti-slavery movement was about. This country could change its laws to give all workers permit to work, but all the hatemongers out there who insist on calling these hard working people names prevent that from happening. And that, sadly, contributes to these operations designed to appease narrow minded, mental dwarfs like those who only post their bigotry in these blogs. Laws allow WalMart and other corporations to set up shop all over the world, why can't laws be written for workers to come over here? The economy of this country is so immoral is sickening.

Dayalisse on Jul 16, 2008 at 18:49:30 said:

Can\'t blame ICE agents or our government for the pathetic and humiliating way Mexico has decided to treat their citizens. Mexico is an oil-rich nation with great schools. But Mexico decides who is worthy of that education based on a class sytem. I feel bad for the illegals becasue my parents although legal, were new immigrants in this country and worked just as hard for the same low wages but were LEGAL.

I think we should fix the root of the problem which are racist and classist Mexican demagogs driving their own people out.

Why are American taxpayers the racists? The Mexican government is the racist ones. Notice how darker (indigenous)Mexicans make their way to the U.S. at a much higher rate than white ones? Notice how mostly white Mexicans hold goverment positions in Mexico?

I say America can help all those who come here in need and in search of the American dream not only the American dollar but do it legally.

Stop calling us racists and start calling your own Mexican government out on their injustic toward their own. ( i use mexican b/c that is the majority of the illegal immigrants)

possumus on Jul 16, 2008 at 10:56:01 said:

Because those people work hard at jobs like meat processing and packing which no "american" would want to do..they do the job and make sure the "americans" get their arses bigg ! and now they are caught.. for what...just to show ICE is in papers and to show they are doing their work.....what a broken immigration system...

a big fan on Jul 15, 2008 at 20:27:36 said:

Man, it's so good to hear some good news about the country with the constant onslaught of bad news about the war, economy, housing market, and all that.

good job ICE, keep it up.

mexicans, GTFO. I live here legally, been paying taxes all my life, and I'm rather unhappily unemployed thanks to companies hiring illegal imigrants to save a buck.

nativessayno on Jul 15, 2008 at 16:26:00 said:

frances: your racist baiting is ignorant-plus. The guilt inducing weepy scenario...hope I enjoy my food and shelter..blah blah.

It is more like this: I go to the bus where I see a high percentage of drivers (not citizens) driving decent cars while I stand around like a dope and wait for public transit.

Why you ask? Oh, because a young old latino- non-citizen totalled my car and injured me....But for you it is all hearts and flowers since you are such a giver.....You can give yours to unfriendly, non-english speaker's that are working with a fellow citizens ID, soaking up social welfare benefit;personally I'd rather not.

Just call anyone that does not agree with you a racist and nativist to shut them up. This is a form of tyranny and bullying in the name of "generosity" and altruism. What have you personally sacrificed to make their "dream" come true, Frances?

Frances Denton on Jul 14, 2008 at 11:07:24 said:

Your comments about law and order are poorly veil your racist and nativist comments. I doubt you would want to close the U.S. border--conveniently with only the Southern part of the country--if you filtered out the racisim and realized what that would mean for you as a consumer. It's easy to claim your a law and order person when it hasn't yet affected you. These workers are in the states because there is a demand for their work, we take their cheap labor for granted in the prices we pay. If you take the time to "edumacate" yourself you would realize that they contribute more to the U.S. economy than they take. You would also realize that they are only here because our foreign policy affected their countries in a way that benefitted us and hurt their poorest leaving them in desparate circumstances to trek through a difficult & sometimes deadly journey to arrive in our country, work for cheap labor and have enough money to eat and feed their loved ones. When you're at home eating well not worried about whether you will have enough to feed your children, or have a shelter for them to spend the night, remember the people who you are calling a criminal contributed to your ability to afford the comforts you take for granted.

bill freshour on Jul 14, 2008 at 10:40:14 said:

What's wrong with a documented alien worker system. Instead of spending money on negative projects, use it wisely. It worked in the past but nobody talks about it as a solution. We need these workers, they need the work. Make them legal and the problem is gone. It's not like anybody in America is losing a job because nobody will do these jobs anyway. Wake up to reality.

Dave on Jul 12, 2008 at 23:18:52 said:

I take it back. Technically speaking, they ARE Native Americans. Like many others, I think of Native Americans as referring to being from North America, but Guatemala is, in fact, still part of the Americas. Look it up.

dave on Jul 12, 2008 at 21:51:12 said:

No question about it, they are from Guatamala, they are not Native Americans. But you are wrong about their status. Being here as an undocumented worker is not the same thing as being here as a criminal, although nativist new sources and hate groups love to report that they are dispropirtionately commiting crimes while they are here. And it is true that some of them are, but not in the numbers that these sources like to suggest. Be careful where you get your news. People like to emphasize that they are here illegally, but that doesn't make everything they do while they are here a crime. And you are right, it is a problem that they are here. We need to fix the problem. HUMANELY. Fixing one part of the problem (by raiding and deporting) and doing so in the most inhumane way possible, while neglecting to fix the other problems that lead to illegal immigration in the first place doesn't make sense. People don't realize that our unfair trade practices with other countries affects poor people in those countries, and it's time to hold the US government accountable for that.)
And it's time people stopped blaming these people, rather than our government and the rich corrupt businesses that deal with us in those countries. The poor people that are forced to migrate to other countries that are only to happy to hire them are only the symptom, they are not the source of the problem. Unless of course you choose to only listen to racist news sources and websites that only emphasize the criminal behavior of undocumented immigrants and blame them for very ill under the sun, without recognizing their role here, and that we, as a country, have not only grown accustomed to them here, but rely heavily on their cheap labor, which is wrong. I think you can agree with me, and I with you, that our immigration system is broken, but it is misguided to blame the immigrants themselves. Furthermore, it is NOT a criminal offense to be here without documentation, it is a CIVIL offense. Look it up. And accusing the immigrants of ID fraud while forcing them to sign waivers to waive their rights away, neglecting to hold the company equally at fault for ID fraud, and then separating them from their families and incarcerating them, so that they are now unable to earn money, which is more of a tax burden on the rest of the country, is just plain wrong. Open your eyes. These are humans just like you. Get past your hatred and racist ways.

kijafha on Jul 12, 2008 at 15:07:05 said:

Yes Dave they ARE criminals.

And they are NOT native Americans, they are native Guatemalans! The whole problem is that they didn't go through legal channels in order to become native Americans! They decided to break the LAW!

dave on Jul 11, 2008 at 16:33:15 said:

nativessayno, do you honestly believe that these workers and their families were getting more than they were putting into the system, that their contribution to the company for their cheap labor, and their presence and contribution in the town is something that you are qualified to make a judgment over? What happens when the town becomes a ghost town. These people probably worked hard all their lives. Yes, they may have come here without the proper documents to stay here, but they are not criminals! To treat them as such is a tragedy and obscene. What's more, many of them are now non-contributing to society by being imprisoned for crimes they do not understand they even commited. So more tax dollars are being spent on them now than when they were working. How does that help the community and society at large?

nativessayno on Jul 11, 2008 at 14:38:47 said:

They are Latin Americans that snuck here, got a job at this plant under fradulent means and got busted.

They do get:

free social services;
subsidized Section 8 housing,
food stamps
free school for their kids:
free medical/dental
free legal reps
etc etc

What am I getting for free? NADA!

The more cheap and manipulative the sob stories the madder the Close Border folks get; just an infuriating snow job and we aren't buying it.

This is a form of robbery disguised a sad story. Actually quite mercenary because they just need more more and more!

Any gratitude, any remorse for breaking any laws and exploiting our federal, state and local systems? Have not heard that...I'm waiting....

Here's an interpretation for you: get out!

A Proud American on Jul 11, 2008 at 14:37:39 said:

Simple answer, don't come into our country illegally and then none of this would have had to happen. I hope ICE continues and ramps up the frequency of these raids.

howard on Jul 11, 2008 at 13:12:49 said:

This situation is going to repeat itself over and over again till the mess is cleaned up. They are not innocent, they broke our law coming here and then stole ifdentities to get jobs that they are not legally allowed to have. If you want to blame someone, blame our federal government that allowed this to happen and the government figured it would do just another amnesty to wipe the slate clean.
Amnesty for illegals is unexceptable and amnesty for the goernment not doing their job is intolerable, and let's not let the business exploiting cheap illegal labor for breaking the law also. Legal or not at all.




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