Court Interpreter Breaks Confidentiality Code to Speak Out for Workers Rounded Up in Largest Immigration Raid in U.S. History

July 14, 2008


Erik Camayd-Freixas

professor of modern languages at Florida International University in Miami. He was a court-appointed interpreter at the trial of the nearly 400 workers arrested in an immigration raid in Postville, Iowa in May. He has written a scathing account of the trial. It’s called "Interpreting After the Largest ICE Raid in US History: A Personal Account."

On May 12th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested nearly 400 workers at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa in the largest immigration raid in US history. Many were sent to prison. We speak with Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor and Spanish-language court interpreter who was flown into Iowa for the trial. He broke the code of confidentiality among legal interpreters to describe the workers’ predicament in what he calls "the saddest procession I have ever witnessed." He says most of the workers were peasants from Guatemala and did not fully understand the criminal charges they were facing. He also says that court-appointed lawyers had little time to meet with the workers, many of whom ended up waiving their rights. [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Postville, Iowa, a small town of just over 2,000 people. On May 12th, the town became the site of the largest immigration raid in US history. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, arrested 389 workers at Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in the country. Nearly 300 of the workers were charged with aggravated identity theft and Social Security fraud. Many were sent to prison.

Erik Camayd is a professor of modern languages at Florida International University in Miami. He was one of the twenty-six court-appointed interpreters flown into Iowa for the trial.

In an account describing his experience, he wrote: “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. 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 in tears; others with faces of worry, fear, and embarrassment."

This is one of the workers speaking in her own words.

    ELIDA: [translated] My name is Elida, and I’m from Guatemala. I have two children. I brought here because of the situation in our town in Guatemala. We couldn’t survive, because we were poor. We came here to make a living, to work. But where we worked, they exploited us. We didn’t have any option but to accept the work, because we knew we needed the money. I think it’s very unjust, what they’re doing to us, because after they needed the work of our hands to do this labor, now they’re paying us like this. If they could only realize that all of us here are so traumatized by what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Professor Erik Camayd. He joins us now from Miami. We’re also joined in New York by Roberto Lovato, a writer with New America Media and frequent contributor to The Nation magazine, who writes extensively on immigration politics and immigrant rights.

Erik Camayd, describe your experience.

ERIK CAMAYD-FREIXAS: Well, it was a unique experience for me in my twenty-three years as a federal interpreter. It started with waiting around in the courtroom until they started bringing in the defendants, and they were shackled at the waist, wrists and feet and coming in in rows of ten. Then they sat down to be arraigned. And one of the first things that struck me is that there didn’t seem to be a presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence became kind of like empty words, because they were shackled. They were on an immigration detainer, so they didn’t have any right to bail, like normally defendants would. And so, that’s how it started.

It was a very long process that lasted two weeks. And as I went along, day after day, there was a new irregularity in the process. And eventually, I guess, there was an irregularity at every step, I would say, comparing this process, these fast-tracking judicial proceedings, with the judicial proceedings that I’ve watched in federal court over twenty-three years of professional practice.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe for us, as you pieced it together, what actually went down in May when this raid took place, the largest immigration raid in US history?

ERIK CAMAYD-FREIXAS: Well, the plant was stormed by what is really a paramilitary force of hundreds of agents. And they brought the detainees to the National Cattle Congress that had been prepared as a detention center. The security there was high security.

And then, after the initial appearance where the detainees were arraigned, we went — the different interpreters with their attorneys went to the different jails in throughout eastern Iowa, where the arraigned detainees had been taken. And then we met with each one individually, of the ones that each attorney had assigned to, and explained the plea agreement to them and went through basically an interview, fairly in-depth, with each of the clients.

I think that it is important to mention that one of the things that struck me about these proceedings is that the different officers of the court did not witness the entire process from beginning to end. The interpreters did. We were there from before arraignment for the very brief attorney-client conferences in preparation for arraignment, through the arraignment, and then in the interviews in jail and the sentencings and in the interviews after sentencing. There were different judges doing the arraignment and the sentencing. Magistrates were doing arraignments and hearing the pleas, and then US district court judges were doing the sentencing. So there wasn’t a continuity, so that basically none of the other officers of the court were able to see the entire process the way that interpreters could.

AMY GOODMAN: Erik Camayd, can you talk about some of the people you interpreted for, to give us a thumbnail sketch of who they were, like the man who walked from Guatemala to Iowa to work?

ERIK CAMAYD-FREIXAS: Yes. That was a very striking case, because the attorney asked him, through the interpreters, how he came to the United States, what his story was, to see what actually was the background of his case. And when asked how he came to the United States, he answered, “I walked.” And we looked at each other. The attorney thought that maybe I was misinterpreting. So we asked again, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I walked for a month and ten days, until I crossed the river.” So he actually walked all the way from Guatemala, across Mexico, by himself, until he crossed the border alone, and then he gathered with other — he met other immigrants and hitchhiked rides on a truck to Dallas and then to Postville. So, we understood how desperate his family situation was.

There were many in that same predicament. They were basically begging to be deported. And, of course, what made this case unique was that, for the first time, at least in this scale, they were not being deported but actually criminally prosecuted and sent to jail for five months or more. And the fact that they did not have a right to bail and that if they wanted to plead “not guilty” they would have had to wait possibly longer, up to six or eight months in jail without bail waiting for a trial, made this situation very, very difficult to really say that there was justice done in many of these cases.

Even though I can tell you individual cases, the truth of the matter — and I will — the truth of the matter is that they were all treated exactly the same, with the same plea agreement. There was no case-by-case review, no circumstances — individual circumstances reviewed. So, basically, the innocent and the guilty were all bunched together.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe — Erik, you describe one man just weeping through it all. You say that he just said he was nobody.

ERIK CAMAYD-FREIXAS: Yes, yes. This was the first interview, and it lasted three hours. For most of those three hours, this man was just weeping, and he was weeping for his family, worried about his children. He had children back in Guatemala, his mother, his wife and his sister all depending on him. He was the sole earner for the entire family.

And one of the burdens of the interpreter is that in order to really be able to interpret accurately and convey the meaning and the spirit of the meaning that each person says, you really have to put yourself in their place. You have to become them, so to speak. And when I became this man, so I could interpret for him accurately, I was placed in the position that he was in, and I found it, quite frankly, to be an intolerable burden. Basically, I saw immediately that this man had no choice but to plead guilty, if he wanted to return to his family as soon as possible, after five months in jail and then at least another month for deportation. So, I could immediately see myself in that situation, and I realized that this man, just like many others — women, as well, parents — would be placed in jail for these five months, and every waking hour they would be consumed by the worry as to whether their family was going to make it, as to whether any of their children was going to make it that day. And on top of that, they would have to carry the burden of having failed their families.

So, to me, that situation, which was — I think could have been foreseen and should have been foreseen by authorities, because they are experienced in this, so they know, they must know, and it is their business to know, that many of these Guatemalan and Mexican people have families in their countries and children depending on them, as well as in Iowa, in the United States, in Postville, in this case, such that to place them in that position, basically holding their families’ well-being ransom over their heads in order to induce them to accept a plea agreement and plead guilty as the fastest way to get back home and then placing them in jail for that time under that kind of duress, I think that it’s very disturbing. It’s very disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Camayd, you took the unusual step of breaking a code of confidentiality among legal interpreters. You’ve been doing this interpreting for almost a quarter of a century. You’re a professor of modern languages at Florida International University in Miami. Why did you do this?

ERIK CAMAYD-FREIXAS: Well, first of all, let me say that I’m a professor of interpreter ethics, so I knew exactly what I was doing and how and to what extent I could speak out and so forth. I do not advocate for other interpreters to do this. I think I was in a unique position, where I had the duty to do this, as a citizen and also as an interpreter.

Let me say that I did not break the code of confidentiality. The confidentiality clause in the Interpreter Code of Ethics is designed to prevent the interpreter from affecting the outcome of the case. Now, in this situation, the case was over May 23rd. The defendants had ten days in which to appeal the sentence, and I didn’t even begin writing my essay until the second week of June. So, by that time, not only was the case over and these people in jail, but also the appeal period, the ten-day period for appeal, had expired, so it was a closed case. So, at that point, the confidentiality did not apply any longer.

In addition to that, confidentiality is not absolute. There are other requirements, ethical requirements of the interpreter that override it many times. For instance, if you are a medical interpreter and you find out that a client has tuberculosis or another epidemic disease, and they tell you, “Please don’t tell anybody, because I’ll be placed in quarantine, and I won’t be able to support my family,” well, you have a duty to report it, because it’s in the public interest, and that overrides confidentiality.

In this case, there was also the —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds, Professor Camayd.

ERIK CAMAYD-FREIXAS: OK. There was also the requirement for me to notify about any impediment in the legal process as an officer of the court. And that’s why I did what I did.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Professor Erik Camayd-Freixas. We will link to your report on what happened in Postville, Iowa.

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