Erik Camayd-Freixas: The Federal Court Interpreter Gives an Insider's Account of the Justice System after One of the Largest Immigration Raids in U.S. History

By Hing, Julianne Ong | Colorlines Magazine, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Erik Camayd-Freixas: The Federal Court Interpreter Gives an Insider's Account of the Justice System after One of the Largest Immigration Raids in U.S. History


Hing, Julianne Ong, Colorlines Magazine


You arrived in Postville, Iowa, Last May immediately after an immigration raid at a meatpacking plant led to the arrests of nearly 400 workers--many of them Guatemalan. How would you describe the scene? These raids are paramilitary operations. Their distribution and resources, their trailers, are all based on a military plan. It was very, very tight security. There were hundreds of armed agents. There was one trailer alone that was an actual arsenal. They also had an evacuation plan in case of a riot for the civilians. It was very much Guantanamo-style.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

How did the courts operate under these conditions? Judges and prosecutors never get to see the real human situation up close because they don't get to interview the defendants in private. From that safe moral distance, it's very easy to prosecute and convict and condemn. In fact I only saw one person do this--a Ukrainian woman spoke in court about her young daughter who was so ill, whose hair had fallen out and needed an operation or she would have died. She came to the U.S. to work to save her daughter in Ukraine.

When the lawyers and interpreters went to the jail interviews, to meet one-on-one, we spent hours interviewing people and getting their whole story. There was a man who walked for 40 days from Guatemala to the United States. Imagine the other 269 stories of people sitting in jail!

If you saw what these people are going through as parents ... it's an absolute violation of human rights. In jail, whenever people cried telling their stories, they never cried for themselves, but for their children and what they would have to go through.

Immigrants were given options of choosing five months in jail followed by deportation or waiting to be tried. How did you interpret this for immigrants? These so-called options were no options at all. They basically gave the lawyers a 15-or 20-page plea agreement to read in Spanish. For most of the detainees, Spanish was a second language for them. Even if they understood the Spanish, they never would have understood the legal jargon. It was hard enough for me to understand it.

We had to say, "Okay, if you plead guilty, you get five months and get deported, but if you plead not guilty, you face a trial. If convicted, you get a minimum of two years."

They would say, "Trial? I cannot win. I know I have no rights." And the lawyers and interpreters, we would say, " Yes, you do!" And they would say, "No we don't. I'm illegal." They would look at us with a smile like they had pity for us and how little we understood about the U.S. "They're telling us we have rights, but here we are in jail--what cloud did you come from?"

How did the government fast-track legal proceedings for hundreds of immigrants? It was the same type of prosecutorial strategies used with drug dealers and murderers: threatening them with a bogus inflated charge of aggravated identity theft to get them to plead guilty to a lesser charge. …

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