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

Wednesday, May 14, our second day in court, was to be a long one. The interpreters were divided into two shifts, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. I chose the latter. Throughout the day, the procession continued, 10 by 10, hour after hour: the same charges, the same recitation from the magistrates, the same chains and shackles on the defendants.

There was little to remind us that they were actually 306 individuals, except that occasionally, as though to break the monotony, one would dare to speak for the others and beg to be deported quickly so that they could feed their families back home. One who turned out to be a minor was bound over for deportation. The rest would be prosecuted.

Later in the day three groups of women were brought, shackled in the same manner. One of them, whose husband was also arrested, was released to care for her children, ages two and five, uncertain of their whereabouts.
Thus far the work had oddly resembled a judicial assembly line in which the meat packers were mass processed. But things were about to get a lot more personal.
Several men and women were weeping, but two women were particularly grief stricken. One of them was sobbing and would repeatedly struggle to bring a sleeve to her nose, but her wrists shackled around her waist simply would not reach; so her nose just dripped until she was taken away with the rest.

The other one, a Ukrainian woman, was held and arraigned separately when a Russian telephonic interpreter came on. She spoke softly into a cellular phone, while the interpreter told her story in English over the speakerphone. Her young daughter, gravely ill, had lost her hair and was too weak to walk. She had taken her to Moscow and Kiev but to no avail. She was told that her child needed an operation or would soon die. She had come to America to work and raise the money to save her daughter back in the Ukraine.

In every instance, detainees who cried did so for their children, never for themselves.

The next day we started early, at 6:45 a.m. We were told that we had to finish the hearings by 10 a.m. Thus far the work had oddly resembled a judicial assembly line in which the meat packers were mass processed. But things were about to get a lot more personal as we prepared to interpret for individual attorney-client conferences.

In those first three days, interpreters had been pairing up with defense attorneys to help interview their clients. Each of the 18 court appointed attorneys represented 17 defendants on average. By now, the clients had been sent to several state and county prisons throughout eastern Iowa, so we had to interview them in jail.

The attorney with whom I was working had clients in Des Moines and wanted to be there first thing in the morning. So a colleague and I drove the 2.5 hours that evening and stayed overnight in a hotel outside the city. We met the attorney in jail Friday morning, but the clients had not been accepted there and had been sent instead to a state penitentiary in Newton, another 45-minute drive. While we waited to be admitted, the attorney pointed out the reason why the prosecution wanted to finish arraignments by 10 a.m. Thursday: According to the writ of habeas corpus, they had 72 hours from Monday’s raid to charge the prisoners or release them for deportation (only a handful would be so lucky). The right of habeas corpus, but of course! It dawned on me that we were paid overtime, adding hours to the day, in a mad rush to abridge habeas corpus, only to help put more workers in jail.

Now I really felt bad. But it would soon get worse. I was about to bear the brunt of my conflict of interest.

It came with my first jail interview. The purpose was for the attorney to explain the uniform Plea Agreement that the government was offering. The explanation, which we repeated over and over to each client, went like this: There are three possibilities. If you plead guilty to the charge of “knowingly using a false Social Security number,” the government will withdraw the heavier charge of “aggravated identity theft,” and you will serve five months in jail, be deported without a hearing, and placed on supervised release for three years. If you plead not guilty, you could wait in jail six to eight months for a trial (without right of bail since you are on an immigration detainer). Even if you win at trial, you will still be deported, and could end up waiting longer in jail than if you just pled guilty. You would also risk losing at trial and receiving a two-year minimum sentence before being deported.

Some clients understood their “options” better than others.

That first interview, though, took three hours. The client, a Guatemalan peasant afraid for his family, spent most of that time weeping at our table, in a corner of the crowded jailhouse visiting room. How had he come here from Guatemala? “I walked.” What? “I walked for a month and 10 days until I crossed the river.”

We understood immediately how desperate his family’s situation was. He crossed alone, met other immigrants, and hitched a truck ride to Dallas, then Postville, where he heard there was sure work. He slept in an apartment hallway with other immigrants until he got a job. He had scarcely been working a couple of months when he was arrested.
Before he signed with a scribble, he said, “God knows you are just doing your job to support your families, and that job is to keep me from supporting mine.”
Maybe he was lucky: Another man who had begun that Monday had only been working for 20 minutes. “I just wanted to work a year or two, save, and then go back to my family, but it was not to be.”

His case and that of a million others could simply be solved by a temporary work permit as part of our much overdue immigration reform. “The good Lord knows I was just working and not doing anyone any harm.”

This man, like many others, was in fact not guilty. “Knowingly” and “intent” are necessary elements of the charges, but most of the clients we interviewed did not even know what a Social Security number was or what purpose it served.

This worker simply had the papers filled out for him at the plant, since he could not read or write Spanish, let alone English. But the lawyer still had to advise him that pleading guilty was in his best interest. He was unable to make a decision. “You all do and undo,” he said. “So you can do whatever you want with me.”

To him we were part of the system keeping him from being deported back to his country, where his children, wife, mother, and sister depended on him. He was their sole support and did not know how they were going to make it with him in jail for five months. None of the “options” really mattered to him. Caught between despair and hopelessness, he just wept. He had failed his family, and was devastated.

I went for some napkins, but he refused them. I offered him a cup of soda, which he superstitiously declined, saying it could be “poisoned.” His Native American spirit was broken and he could no longer think. He stared for a while at the signature page pretending to read it, although I knew he was actually praying for guidance and protection. Before he signed with a scribble, he said, “God knows you are just doing your job to support your families, and that job is to keep me from supporting mine.”

There was my conflict of interest, well-put by a weeping, illiterate man.

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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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