The largest raid against undocumented immigrants in Iowa on 12 May resulted in the detention of 389 workers.
Considered by federal authorities as the “largest police operation in history at the workplace” also resulted in the judging and sentencing in a record 4 days of 260 immigrants to five months in prison because of working with false documents.
This “impressive success” as reported by Iowa’s Attorney General was possibly due to depriving immigrants, the majority from Guatemala, of certain basic rights established by the Constitution as the right to a defense by a lawyer. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), protested against this abuse because the authorities dismissed their petitions and requests on behalf of the immigrant workers.
With feet and hands shackled, immigrants were judged in groups of ten. Each one had to plead guilty to having used counterfeit Social Security numbers. All hearings were held in trailers that served as mobile courtrooms.
The news in this case apart from the high number of detainees and the speed in which they were tried and sentenced, was that for the first time so many individuals were criminally prosecuted, instead of imposing civil sanctions.
Only a month and a half after the Iowa raid, on June 25, 160 workers in a textile factory in Houston were arrested. In this operation 200 ICE agents intervened according to Robert Rutt who told the New York Times “by attacking the problem in a global and strategic fashion, we believe that we can force a change in the corporate culture.” Another immigrant and friend of some of the detainees explained that some of them, while undocumented, had already lived in the area for over 10 years.
“Guilty As Charged?”
It is not that simple. Such guilty pleadings resulted from a “plea bargain”, a very foreign notion to many immigrants not used to “bargaining” accepting charges whether true or false and “trading” them in exchange for leaner sentencing. The authorities proposed an offer ‘hard to refuse’: “Rewarding guilty pleadings for a minor offense, with the offer of dropping more serious charges.”
That is why the Guatemalan workers in Iowa “pleaded guilty” of using false documents “in exchange for” a milder sentence of 5 months instead of the threat by prosecutors of accusing them of grave crimes resulting in years of imprisonment.
Another consequence of this “bargain” was that those immigrants agreed to cooperate with the investigation, which involved denouncing other immigrants under the same circumstances.
The irony is that these immigrants already endured harsh working conditions. As per various news media reports many immigrants worked in unhealthy conditions up to 14 hours a day, including night shifts without the corresponding pay.
Relying On the Criminal Justice System
The new turn of events in the government’s fight against immigration consists of dealing with a humanitarian crisis as it were a criminal phenomenon to be handled by the criminal justice system.
In statements to the press in 2007, Karl Rove, political strategist and advisor to president George W. Bush explained that while proposing a comprehensive immigration reform, it was necessary to employ force and punishment to eliminate the “immigration magnet” deterring immigrants from returning to the US.
As a matter of fact between 2002 and 2008 the number of immigration federal prosecutions increased 400%. In March this year 9,350 cases of federal criminal prosecutions brought against immigrants represented 57% of the nationwide total number of new federal prosecution cases, followed by drug trafficking, which represented only 13%.
It is quite patent that for the federal government undocumented immigration is regarded as the most important criminal activity in the nation, as per the data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse –TRAC. This non-partisan organization reported “Federal immigration prosecutions continued their recent and highly unusual surge in March 2008, apparently reaching an all-time high, according to timely data obtained from the Justice Department”.
Sadly, though authorities acknowledge that the great majority of the 389 Guatemalan workers had no criminal records whatsoever, today they have been convicted, and undocumented re-entry into the U.S. would constitute yet another crime.