A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
Erik Camayd-Freixas, Ph.D.
Florida International University
June 13, 2008
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 meat packing 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=2 0that 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 about. 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, I20was not prepared for a disaster of such a different kind, one which was entirely man-made.
arrived late that Monday night and missed the 8pm interpreters briefing. I was instructed by phone to meet at 7am 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 b een set up. The Clerk of Court, who coordinated the interpreters, said: "Have you seen the news? There was an immigration raid yesterday at 10am. They have some 400 detainees here. We'll be working late conducting initial appearances for the next few days." 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 NCC20board 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 c ameras were not allowed past the perimeter of the compound (only a few journalists came to court the following days, notepad 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, 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 5 ft. tall, mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names, some being relatives (various Tajtaj, Xicay, Sajché, Sologüí...), some in tears; others with 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 19th20century, 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 could 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 4pm. However, the prosecution worked overnight, planning on a 7am to midnight court marathon the next day.
I was eager to get back to my hotel room to find out more about the case, since 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 DesMoinesRegister.com and started reading all the 20+ 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% were illegal immigrants. There were 697 arrest warrants, but late-shift workers had not arrived, so "only" 390 were ar rested: 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 mostly mothers with unattended children, a few with 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. [Mark Godsey]