The Postville ICE Raid: An Enormous Abuse of Power
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It seems there was good reason to be concerned about the unusual handling of the cases of illegal immigrants caught up in last month's massive raids at Postville, Iowa -- where, as we noted at the time, immigrants not only were treated like cattle, the prosecutors engaged in questionable tactics as they processed these cases: deploying the unusual tactic of threatening the immigrants with felony identity-theft charges and sending them to prison when they either plead guilty or were quickly found guilty. Last week there was a New York Times editorial directing us to an essay by Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Spanish-language court interpreter who was called in to help process detainees in the raid. It makes the devastating case that the Department of Homeland Security, in collusion with the Justice Department, is (in the words of one observer we heard from about this case) "basically gaming the Federal judiciary using existing law, rules and regulations to force the judiciary to act as a coerced agent of the executive to imprison undocumented workers, after which they are deported with a prison record." As Camayd-Freixas makes clear, these workers were charged improperly with a crime of which they were innocent as the means of forcing them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, for which they then accepted five-month prison sentence. As the NYT editorial says:
Under the old way of doing things, the workers, nearly all Guatemalans, would have been simply and swiftly deported. But in a twist of Dickensian cruelty, more than 260 were charged as serious criminals for using false Social Security numbers or residency papers, and most were sentenced to five months in prison.
What is worse, Dr. Camayd-Freixas wrote, is that the system was clearly rigged for the wholesale imposition of mass guilt. 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.
You really need to read the entire piece by Camayd-Freixas. This passage in particular stood out:
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 ( www.ice.gov) 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". 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" . 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". Terrorism related arrests were not any more substantial. The real numbers are in immigration: "In FY07, ICE removed 276,912 illegal aliens". 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".
De facto, the rationale is: we have the excess capability; we are already paying for it; ergo, use it we must. And using it we are: since FY06 "ICE has introduced an aggressive and effective campaign to enforce immigration law within the nation's interior, with a top-level focus on criminal aliens, fugitive aliens and those who pose a threat to the safety of the American public and the stability of American communities".
Camayd-Freixas, as it turns out, is also an exceptionally thorough and gifted analyst. As he goes on to explain, raids such as the one at Postville reflect a massive ICE bureaucracy built up through years of Bush-administration post-9/11 fearmongering and nativist yammering that resulted in massive overfunding of the department. Now it's at the point where it's a cocked pistol looking for action:
When the executive responded to post-9/11 criticism by integrating law enforcement operations and security intelligence, ICE was created as "the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)" with "broad law enforcement powers and authorities for enforcing more than 400 federal statutes". A foreseeable effect of such broadness and integration was the concentration of authority in the executive branch, to the detriment of the constitutional separation of powers. Nowhere is this more evident than in Postville, where the expansive agency's authority can be seen to impinge upon the judicial and legislative powers. "ICE's team of attorneys constitutes the largest legal program in DHS, with more than 750 attorneys to support the ICE mission in the administrative and federal courts. ICE attorneys have also participated in temporary assignments to the Department of Justice as Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys spearheading criminal prosecutions of individuals. These assignments bring much needed support to taxed U.S. Attorneys' offices". English translation: under the guise of interagency cooperation, ICE prosecutors have infiltrated the judicial branch. Now we know who the architects were that spearheaded such a well crafted "fast-tracking" scheme, bogus charge and all, which had us all, down to the very judges, fall in line behind the shackled penguin march. Furthermore, by virtue of its magnitude and methods, ICE's New War is unabashedly the aggressive deployment of its own brand of immigration reform, without congressional approval. "In FY07, as the debate over comprehensive immigration reform moved to the forefront of the national stage, ICE expanded upon the ongoing effort to re-invent immigration enforcement for the 21st century". In recent years, DHS has repeatedly been accused of overstepping its authority. The reply is always the same: if we limit what DHS/ICE can do, we have to accept a greater risk of terrorism. Thus, by painting the war on immigration as inseparable from the war on terror, the same expediency would supposedly apply to both. Yet, only for ICE are these agendas codependent: the war on immigration depends politically on the war on terror, which, as we saw earlier, depends economically on the war on immigration. This type of no-exit circular thinking is commonly known as a "doctrine." In this case, it is an undemocratic doctrine of expediency, at the core of a police agency, whose power hinges on its ability to capitalize on public fear. Opportunistically raised by DHS, the sad specter of 9/11 has come back to haunt illegal workers and their local communities across the USA.
A line was crossed at Postville. The day after in Des Moines, there was a citizens' protest featured in the evening news. With quiet anguish, a mature all-American woman, a mother, said something striking, as only the plain truth can be. "This is not humane," she said. "There has to be a better way."
It's perhaps worth remembering that incipient police states always target the most vulnerable members of society when they start out. And in today's America, there are no people more vulnerable than those millions of workers here, for a human universe of reasons, illegally. That's not to say we are in an incipient police state, but the warnings are unmistakable -- especially in tandem with the Bush administration's massive acquisition of previously unimagined executive-branch powers -- and should not be dismissed blithely. We can sit back and watch with grim satisfaction as these people are rounded up like cattle and forcefed into a Kafkaesque travesty of justice, and say to ourselves: Glad it's happening to them and not me. But sooner or later, those same forces find new targets. And sooner or later, we're all on that list.
David Neiwert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle.