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Iowa Town Turned into “Open-Air Prison” as Wives of Men Arrested in Largest Immigration Raid in US History Forbidden to Work…or Leave

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Three months after the largest immigration raid in US history, when nearly 400 workers were arrested at a meatpacking plant, Postville, Iowa is a changed town. Postville lost more than a quarter of its population in the raid. And for those left behind, namely the wives and children of the men taken away, the town has been turned into what some have described as an open-air prison. Dozens of immigrant women remain in Postville without status or a means of support. Many of them are even forbidden from leaving and have been made to wear electronic monitoring bracelets. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJul 14, 2008Court Interpreter Breaks Confidentiality Code to Speak Out for Workers Rounded Up in Largest Immigration Raid in U.S. History
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been three months since immigration officials descended on the tiny town of Postville in northeastern Iowa to conduct what would become the largest immigration raid in US history.

On May 12th, helicopters, buses and vans carrying dozens of armed immigration agents descended on Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in the country. Nearly 400 workers, most of them Mexican and Guatemalan, were arrested. Nearly 300 of them were charged with aggravated identity theft and Social Security fraud. Many were sent to prisons scattered across the state.

Postville lost more than a quarter of its population in the raid. And for those left behind, namely the wives and children of the men taken away, the town has been turned into what some have described as an open-air prison. Dozens of immigrant women remain in Postville without status or a means of support. Many of them are even forbidden from leaving and have been made to wear electronic monitoring bracelets.

The women are now forced to rely on donations from St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church and the local food pantry. [Father] Paul Ouderkirk spent the past half-century as a priest and had been in retirement for five years when he was called back to active duty at St. Bridget’s after the raid. He joins us now on the phone from Postville.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

PAUL OUDERKIRK: Thank you, Amy. Good to be with you this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Describe what’s happening in Postville.

PAUL OUDERKIRK: At the present moment, the women you described as being prisoners are still here. I know of only — out of forty-three that have leg monitoring devices, I know of only six so far that have received permission to go home and had the monitors removed. A couple went yesterday. So we are constantly providing for all the rest, since they can’t work, have no income, and they have children.

Right now, one of the primary concerns is getting the children into school. And school here in Postville begins on Thursday, and we still talk to many of the mothers who are afraid to put their children in school. And I talked to a young girl — she’s about fifth grade — yesterday who said she couldn’t go, because she didn’t have money to buy school supplies. So we’re trying to sort through all of that and help them as much as we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you go back to the beginning and describe exactly what happened in May?

PAUL OUDERKIRK: On May 12th, the raid took place. And right after the raid, when the buses began to take people away, about between 300 and 400 people rushed to our church out of fear. And for the next six days, they lived, slept, ate, and many of them refused to leave the church. We had them sleeping in our church, sleeping in the hall. They were afraid to go home, because the common fear was that immigration would know where their apartments were or their homes were and would come and take them and their children away. And so, we kept them.

And they relied on us for everything. At one time, according to my own calculations, we were feeding up to a thousand people a day, because we had to bring in food, volunteer workers, and our parish kitchen is not that big. But thanks to outside donations from various service organizations and area churches, we were able to feed them. And at the end of that week, we encouraged them to go back to their apartments, because we had to provide them some kind of a normality. The church and the hall was being taxed to the extreme. And, little by little, they began to go home.

And then we began to look into their needs. You know, what were their needs? They needed food, they needed clothing, they needed advice. They wanted to know where their husbands were. And the third thing we had to be aware of is that they were going to need some legal help. And here in Postville, there are no immigration lawyers here.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn now to our next guest. We’re joined by Father Paul Ouderkirk. He’s speaking to us from Postville. But we turn now to our next guest, from the American Civil Liberties Union, which recently obtained a government manual distributed to defense lawyers who were assigned to represent the immigrant workers arrested in the Postville raid. According to the ACLU, the document contains prepackaged scripts for plea and sentencing hearings, as well as documents providing for guilty pleas and waivers of rights that were used to push more than 300 postal workers through mass criminal proceedings as quickly as possible. Monica Ramirez is a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, joining us on the phone from San Francisco.

Monica Ramirez, welcome to Democracy Now!

Explain this document.

MONICA RAMIREZ: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. The government manual provided for the workers to waive, as you said, all of their legal rights and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, to plead guilty to charges of falsely using identity documents for employment. The manual itself was an important tool used to rush defendants through the criminal justice and immigration systems in an unprecedented way. The Postville raid processed hundreds of immigrant workers, as you mentioned, with unprecedented speed. While the size of the raid is significant, the critical and novel element that sets Postville apart from prior immigration raids that we’ve seen in the past two years or so was the preplanned and massive criminal prosecution of immigrant workers.

And, you know, there are a number of key factors that, by design, in fact, were used in combination in Postville to compromise, if not outright negate, meaningful legal representation, voluntary and knowledgeable waivers of rights, and public confidence in a fair prosecutorial and judicial process. These factors include appointment of too few defense counsel to represent multiple defendants, the use of exploding seven-day plea offers, and the conditioning of pleas upon defendants accepting stipulated judicial orders of deportation that compel the waiver of all rights and protections under the immigration laws. So this was definitely an unprecedented raid, and the combination of factors here seriously undermined meaningful legal representation and raises a lot of disturbing questions about whether the constitutional rights of the workers were protected in these prosecutions.

AMY GOODMAN: I recently spoke to Erik Camayd, the Spanish court interpreter who spoke out for the workers rounded up in Postville. I asked him to describe his experience at the trial.

    ERIK CAMAYD-FREIXAS: 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: He’s a professor of modern languages at Florida International University. Highly unusual for an interpreter, for a court translator to speak out as he has, but he decided to do this, Monica Ramirez, based on what each of the people were going through that was being brought through the court system. Your response?

MONICA RAMIREZ: My response to his comment?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, and the fact that he spoke out, saying this was highly unorthodox, what was taking place.

MONICA RAMIREZ: Well, I think it’s incredibly important that he spoke out. I think without his essay, there would be a lot that we would still not know about how these prosecutions were conducted.

I think one critical element that he highlighted in his essay — I’m not sure if he described it in the clip that you just played, but one critical element of the criminal prosecutions here was the predetermined decision to appoint a single criminal defense lawyer to represent large numbers of defendants. Only eighteen, I believe, criminal defense attorneys were appointed by the federal court to represent the more-than-300 workers, and every attorney represented seventeen defendants, on average. Now, it’s unclear how the court decided to appoint that number, how the defense lawyers were selected or identified for appointment. No explanation has been offered as to why an insufficient number of defense attorneys were appointed to provide individualized representation.

And individualized representation was especially critical here, given that the anticipated proceedings would involve complex questions of immigration law and where language, cultural and other barriers would likely impede communication between the client and counsel. Now, the appointment of twenty-six Spanish-language interpreters to work with defense attorneys did not obviate the need for more defense attorneys. Because most of the defendants — defendants were Guatemalans of Mayan descent for whom Spanish was a second language, Spanish-language interpretation of legal concepts and other matters related to the defendants’ prosecutions were likely inadequate. And so, the need for more attorneys and more interpreters cannot be overstated and should be further investigated, particularly in light of the preplanned exploding plea offers and expedited proceedings, more generally.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Paul Ouderkirk, I wanted to go back to Postville for a description, for people who wouldn’t be familiar with this town, which isn’t unusual, a place first settled by German and Norwegian Lutherans and Irish Catholics more than 150 years ago, Hispanic immigrants raising children, buying houses, businesses. AP had an interesting report by Monica Rhor that described the different cultures living next door to each other and what has happened since, in the bringing in of new immigrants to work, like Somalis.

PAUL OUDERKIRK: Well, when I was pastor here for four years, we had a very active diversity council, and it was commonly held that there were twenty-seven different cultures living and working here. And the diversity council became very active, and we did a lot of creative things. Well, you can well imagine that the raid wiped out all those years, about ten years, of good hard work and mutual understanding overnight. And right now — the population of Postville before the raid was 2,400. After the raid, it was less than 2,000.

And only recently, when they’re bringing in the — they brought in the Somalis, but this is not a permanent solution to the lack of workers in the plant. The Somalis that were brought in, oh, about three weeks ago, two-thirds of them have been fired. It was discovered that they are Muslim, and they pray five times a day, and the plant did not want to allow them to have that time. So —-

AMY GOODMAN: This is an interesting contrast. You have the Muslim workers, and it’s a large -— the largest kosher agriprocessor in the world, is that right?

PAUL OUDERKIRK: That’s correct. And they — I toured it. I’m the only one of our staff that has ever toured it, and I toured the plant twice. And the second time, they told me their goal was to become the largest kosher plant, so they could control all the kosher meat going into Israel. And I don’t think they have quite gotten there yet, but they were employing over 900 workers.

The raid, while it took only 390 or 400 — by the way, not all of the people that they took did they take correctly. We know of an instance of a mother that was taken, and she was kept in prison for three days, protesting that she had two children at home she needed to take care of, and they didn’t pay any attention to her. And when they let her out — normally they would have put a leg bracelet on a mother like that — on her, they didn’t, because they could see she was so emotionally wrought that they just said, “Go back to Postville and take care of your children, and don’t leave.” Well, she came into our office, and she was — I’ve never seen anybody so terribly emotionally distressed, her husband being arrested, three days away from her children and in prison with mostly men. And she said to us, “They are never going to do that to me again.” She was terrified. And suddenly, she’s gone. We don’t know where she went.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at this AP piece that goes on to say, “Now, about 20 to 25 women remain tethered to the bracelets — black electronic monitoring devices that dig into the skin of their right ankles, leaving dark bruises and painful cuts. Some women try without success to protect their flesh with makeshift bandages fashioned from bandanas and shorn socks.

“And the women who happily embraced hard work are forced to subsist on donations from St. Bridget’s and the local food pantry while they await court dates.

“While they wait, they worry.”

And it goes on to say that “Last week, the Iowa Labor Commissioner’s Office said an investigation had uncovered 57 cases of child labor law violations at the facility [at Agriprocessors], which has also been cited for numerous safety and health violations. The claims have prompted debates among rabbis about kosher law’s protections for food workers, and how Orthodox oversight officials should involve themselves.”

PAUL OUDERKIRK: Well, you mentioned one thing that we have seen a lot firsthand, and that is the protection of the workers. We know that they are mistreated. A couple were beaten. They were asked to work faster when a line was going already so fast they could barely keep up to it.

When I was pastor here, I saw many cases of carpal tunnel, because they had heavy electronic knives that they had to swing over their heads to cut the legs of chickens and turkeys day after day.

We had the case of a young man whose — he was working on a machine. It got blocked. They shut it down. He reached in to unblock it, and his own foreman turned it on, and he lost a hand. And to this date, he doesn’t receive very much compensation from the plant. He’s seeking to get his just dues there.

But we saw people that were cut and others who were illegally charged for buying their own safety work clothes, when the plant should provide that. They were charged for washing. Different deductions were taken out of their checks that were never explained to them.

And now, when the women come to us — yesterday was our day to help them with rents, utilities, special needs. We do that twice a week. And since our goal is to assist those directly impacted by the raid, we always take those people first, because the other thing that’s happened is that the plant, after firing some of these workers, the workers end up down here looking for assistance, because they have nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we have to leave it there, but we will continue to follow the story of Postville — Postville, Iowa — where the largest immigration raid in US history took place this past May. I want to thank you, Father Paul Ouderkirk, for joining us, and Monica Ramirez, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

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