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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