A Matter of Interpretation: How the Language Barrier and the Trend of Criminalizing Illegal Immigration Caused a Deprivation of Due Process Following the Agriprocessors, Inc. Raids

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After more than 300 unlawful alien workers were arrested on criminal charges in the Agriprocessors, Inc. raid in Postville, Iowa, the proceedings used a fast-tracking plea-bargaining system where every defendant pled guilty within two weeks. These defendants were deprived of their liberty without due process of law: all of the defendants were provided with a Spanish interpreter, yet many of them spoke and understood only indigenous South American languages, not Spanish. The civil balancing test of Mathews v. Eldridge provides a useful lens to analyze these criminal proceedings and to understand what the court should have done to ensure these defendants' pleas were "knowing and voluntary." This Note argues that the Agriprocessors defendants, denied adequate interpretation, were deprived of their liberty without due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment.


On May 12, 2008, federal officials carried out the largest worksite raid to date at Agriprocessors, Inc., the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, in Postville, Iowa. Following the worksite raid led by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, federal prosecutors focused on criminally charging several hundred workers for using false documents in their job applications. Many of those arrested were Guatemalans or Mexicans who spoke indigenous South American languages, not Spanish. However, only Spanish interpreters were provided. Without an interpreter who spoke their languages, every defendant pled guilty within two weeks of being arrested.

The government's policy of criminalizing illegal immigration, which has only accelerated since the September 11 attacks, represents a shift to a more punitive immigration enforcement strategy. Whereas in the past aliens were merely deported or removed - a civil sanction - under the criminalization policy, aliens are charged with crimes and often face imprisonment before being removed. With increased punishment comes an increased concern about defendants' due process rights. The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which applies to unlawful aliens, embodies the constitutional protections for criminal justice procedures.1 However, the hasty Agriprocessors proceedings lacked certain due process protections, especially during the plea negotiation phase, since many of these defendant-aliens were provided interpreters who spoke a language they could not understand.2

The Agriprocessors legal proceedings are particularly appropriate to analyze within the procedural due process context because of the overlap of civil and criminal law found in the immigration context. Because of the criminalization of immigration policy, the government deliberately decided to apply the criminal justice system to these aliens rather than pursuing mere removal. While due process applies in both the civil and criminal context, it is useful in analyzing these criminal proceedings to draw on the civil context, where the tripartite balancing test of Mathews v. Eldridge3 applies, to illustrate how the balancing of government and individual interests in the Agriprocessors cases favored different procedures.

This Note argues that providing Spanish interpreters for nonSpanish-speaking defendants during the plea bargaining phase was a violation of the defendants' due process rights and deprived them of their liberty. Initially, it is impossible to determine whether the defendants in the Agriprocessors proceedings could understand Spanish. However, at least one participant in the proceedings with first-hand knowledge, a certified federal court interpreter and Spanish professor, noted that most of the defendants spoke indigenous languages, and understood Spanish, if at all, as a second language.4 While the lack of primary information about the defendants' language abilities makes some of this Note's analysis speculative, it underscores the need to analyze whether these defendants did indeed receive due process and the more general protections of the criminal justice system. …


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