Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Shame of Postville, Iowa

That is the headline for an editorial in tomorrow's New York Times about the unfair treatment of the hundreds of undocumented migrants arrested in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid of Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa in May. I wrote about the raid in Postville, which has a population of 2,273, just after it happened.

The editorial draws from an essay written by Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor and Spanish-language interpreter who witnessed the court proceedings in which the workers were brought into court, 10-by-10, to face criminal charges following the raid.

Here's an excerpt from the Times piece, with quotes from Camayd-Freixas' essay:
He said the court-appointed lawyers had little time in the raids’ hectic aftermath to meet with the workers, many of whom ended up waiving their rights and seemed not to understand the complicated charges against them.

Dr. Camayd-Freixas’s essay describes “the saddest procession I have ever witnessed, which the public would never see” — because cameras were forbidden.

“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.”

He wrote that they had waived their rights in hopes of being quickly deported, “since they had families to support back home.” He said that they did not understand the charges they faced, adding, “and, frankly, neither could I.”

No mention is made of the venue in the New York Times editorial, but the essay indicates that it was an outpost of the federal district court in Iowa. That is, for purposes of the first appearances of those detained in the raid, the federal district court had set up operations in the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, about 75 miles from Postville.

The essay also provides more information about the court-appointed lawyers. According to Camayd-Freixas, all were criminal lawyers, but not immigration lawyers. The implication is that there is little overlap between the two fields of expertise, at least not in Iowa. (While Iowa has had a significant immigrant population for a couple of decades, but I don't know what this means about the availability of expert assistance with immigration laws throughout the state).

Reading this editorial and the essay that inspired it got me to thinking about how "justice" is meted out in rural locales versus urban ones, including the availability of expert legal services for "have-nots" such as the undocumented workers in Postville. As I read more about the Postville raid and the subsequent legal processing of those arrested, I found myself wanting to know more about how this initial appearance system -- which the editorial suggests was novel--came to be used in Iowa. Could it have been stopped with more expert legal assistance for the accused? Can the apparent harm done be reversed through some sort of appeals? Can it be prevented in the future? Would it have happened in California or Arizona, where perhaps more court-appointed lawyers are familiar with immigration laws?

This reminded me of another story about legal systems possibly running amok in out-of-the-way places, where they may be less accountable to the public. The ACLU apparently stepped in earlier this month to represent some of those arrested at the recent Rainbow Family gathering in western Wyoming. Does it take "big-city" lawyers (in this case the ACLU's Cheyenne office) to fight injustice, in this case allegedly carried out at the hands of both forest service and local officers on US Forest Service lands?

And what difference does it make that, in both of these instances, the alleged injustice was at the hands of federal authorities, not truly (or at least not entirely) local ones?

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