Sunday, July 13, 2008

From Iraq to Iowa

In May this year, ICE raided a chicken-processing plant (Agriprocessors) in Postville, Iowa and arrested nearly 400 immigrant workers. I linked to the story earlier here. The Washington Post's story on it is here. (XicanoPwr has a very good description of the background and raid itself here.) The NY Times then reported that 270 of the immigrants were being sent to prison rather than deported. The new form of federal charge being used against illegal immigrants is aggravated identity theft (for using fake Social Security numbers). This allows for criminal prosecution and serious prison time. After these articles, the event seems to have dropped into a black hole in the mainstream media. What the case shows is the growing criminalization of illegal immigration on grounds other than, well, illegal immigration.

Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor and legal interpreter in the case, who worked closely with the immigrants during their "processing," has decided to speak about the case at length and in detail about both the personal stories and the legal maneuvering on the part of the federal government.

His letter, originally circulated to other legal interpreters, can now be found here. You must read it. Why? Because, hopefully, you're humane.

Camayd-Freixas describes the setting,
...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...

...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 19th century, 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... 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.
In the meantime (echoing the problem I noted earlier):
Postville, Iowa (pop. 2,273), where nearly half the people worked at Agriprocessors, had lost 1/3 of its population by Tuesday morning. Businesses were empty, amid looming concerns that if the plant closed it would become a ghost town. Beside those arrested, many had fled the town in fear. Several families had taken refuge at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, terrified, sleeping on pews and refusing to leave for days. Volunteers from the community served food and organized activities for the children. At the local high school, only three of the 15 Latino students came back on Tuesday, while at the elementary and middle school, 120 of the 363 children were absent. In the following days the principal went around town on the school bus and gathered 70 students after convincing the parents to let them come back to school; 50 remained unaccounted for. Some American parents complained that their children were traumatized by the sudden disappearance of so many of their school friends. The principal reported the same reaction in the classrooms, saying that for the children it was as if ten of their classmates had suddenly died. Counselors were brought in. American children were having nightmares that their parents too were being taken away. The superintendant said the school district’s future was unclear: “This literally blew our town away.” In some cases both parents were picked up and small children were left behind for up to 72 hours. Typically, the mother would be released “on humanitarian grounds” with an ankle GPS monitor, pending prosecution and deportation, while the husband took first turn in serving his prison sentence. Meanwhile the mother would have no income and could not work to provide for her children. Some of the children were born in the U.S. and are American citizens. Sometimes one parent was a deportable alien while the other was not. “Hundreds of families were torn apart by this raid,” said a Catholic nun. “The humanitarian impact of this raid is obvious to anyone in Postville. The economic impact will soon be evident.”

But this was only the surface damage. Alongside the many courageous actions and expressions of humanitarian concern in the true American spirit, the news blogs were filled with snide remarks of racial prejudice and bigotry, poorly disguised beneath an empty rhetoric of misguided patriotism, not to mention the insults to anyone who publicly showed compassion, safely hurled from behind a cowardly online nickname. One could feel the moral fabric of society coming apart beneath it all.
Apart from humaneness, you might also worry about what the excess bloat in the monstrous anti-terrorism bureaucracy - i.e., Homeland Security - now does to fulfill its mission and fill its quotas. I'm a believer in sound government run by competent people and driven by concerns for solving real problems and for the well-being of the people who ostensibly endow it with its existence and legitimacy. But like any expanding bureaucracy driven at its originating core by fear and suspicion, we may now have a government more involved in creating its own enemies - from Iraq to Iowa - than battling real ones.

Camayd-Freixas writes,
It is no secret that the Postville ICE raid was a pilot operation, to be replicated elsewhere, with kinks ironed out after lessons learned. Next time, “fast-tracking” will be even more relentless. Never before has illegal immigration been criminalized in this fashion. It is no longer enough to deport them: we first have to put them in chains. At first sight it may seem absurd to take productive workers and keep them in jail at taxpayers’ expense. But the economics and politics of the matter are quite different from such rational assumptions. A quick look at the ICE Fiscal Year 2007 Annual Report ( shows an agency that has grown to 16,500 employees and a $5 billion annual budget, since it was formed under Homeland Security in March 2003, “as a law enforcement agency for the post-9/11 era, to integrate enforcement authorities against criminal and terrorist activities, including the fights against human trafficking and smuggling, violent transnational gangs and sexual predators who prey on children” (17). No doubt, ICE fulfills an extremely important and noble duty. The question is why tarnish its stellar reputation by targeting harmless illegal workers. The answer is economics and politics. After 9/11 we had to create a massive force with readiness “to prevent, prepare for and respond to a wide range of catastrophic incidents, including terrorist attacks, natural disasters, pandemics and other such significant events that require large-scale government and law enforcement response” (23). The problem is that disasters, criminality, and terrorism do not provide enough daily business to maintain the readiness and muscle tone of this expensive force. For example, “In FY07, ICE human trafficking investigations resulted in 164 arrests and 91 convictions” (17). Terrorism related arrests were not any more substantial. The real numbers are in immigration: “In FY07, ICE removed 276,912 illegal aliens” (4). ICE is under enormous pressure to turn out statistical figures that might justify a fair utilization of its capabilities, resources, and ballooning budget. For example, the Report boasts 102,777 cases “eliminated” from the fugitive alien population in FY07, “quadrupling” the previous year’s number, only to admit a page later that 73,284 were “resolved” by simply “taking those cases off the books” after determining that they “no longer met the definition of an ICE fugitive” (4-5).

De facto, the rationale is: we have the excess capability; we are already paying for it; ergo, use it we must... why focus on illegal workers who pose no threat? Elementary: they are easy pickings. True criminal and fugitive aliens have to be picked up one at a time, whereas raiding a slaughterhouse is like hitting a small jackpot: it beefs up the numbers...

Simply put, the criminalization of illegal workers is just a cheap way of boosting ICE “criminal alien” arrest statistics. But after Postville, it is no longer a matter of clever paperwork and creative accounting: this time around 130 man-years of prison time were handed down pursuant to a bogus charge...

This massive buildup for the New Era is the outward manifestation of an internal shift in the operational imperatives of the Long War, away from the “war on terror” (which has yielded lean statistics) and onto another front where we can claim success: the escalating undeclared war on illegal immigration. “Had this effort been in place prior to 9/11, all of the hijackers who failed to maintain status would have been investigated months before the attack” (9). According to its new paradigm, the agency fancies that it can conflate the diverse aspects of its operations and pretend that immigration enforcement is really part and parcel of the “war on terror.” This way, statistics in the former translate as evidence of success in the latter. Thus, the Postville charges—document fraud and identity theft—treat every illegal alien as a potential terrorist, and with the same rigor. At sentencing, as I interpreted, there was one condition of probation that was entirely new to me: “You shall not be in possession of an explosive artifact.” The Guatemalan peasants in shackles looked at each other, perplexed.


MT said...

It's horrific, vile and bureaucratically inane besides. The criminals are the employers, who as a class seem to be way under-policed and under-punished. Why isn't prosecution of the employers so conducted that the levied fines pay for decent treatment of unauthorized workers and entrants? These people aren't trespassers, but even if they were, that wouldn't legitimize shooting BBs or hurling shit at them. Even if they are uninvited officially, they are de facto our guests. That makes us our own conduct in this case and others like it de facto beastly. Why the psuedo-emergency measure of rounding and confining all of them at once? Did the feds really have no time to prepare and plan something better? What's the risk if any should choose to flee rather than comply with a more civilized plan? They might work somewhere else for some weeks before they're caught again? If we offered them free decent transportation back home or to another place abroad that would accept them; and if we notified them in their own language of penalties they would face if they were caught working here again; what percentage of them would decline the transportation? If that strategy were able to work even just for half, how is it fair or reasonable that we're being jerks to absolutely everybody as a rule? I wonder how much of the current policy reflects lobbying by the prison industry? I'd like to see some lobbying by Amtrack.

helmut said...

Brutishness. At some point you've got to wonder whether this is a people that revels in simply being brutish.