Rush to Prosecute Leaves Immigrant Victims of Crimes Without Protection


Immigrants who have been trafficked or abused by employers usually enjoy the protection of the U.S. government. But if the recent immigration raids at a Postville, Iowa meat-packing plant are any indication, that might be a thing of the past. Now those workers face deportation instead.

In May, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid took place at an Iowa kosher meat-packing plant. It was the largest raid ever. Nearly 400 employees at Agriprocessors were rounded up and interrogated by immigration officials. The search warrant executed by ICE also laid out a range of workplace abuses, including physical abuse. According to the government's own warrant: "In February, Source #7 told ICE agents he or she observed a Jewish floor supervisor duct-tape the eyes of an undocumented Guatemalan worker shut and hit the Guatemalan with a meat hook."

Additional allegations of sexual abuse towards female workers were reported in the Des Moines Register. According to Sister Mary McCauley, a Roman Catholic nun at St. Bridget's Catholic Church in Postville, "workers said that there was sexual abuse, that there's propositioning. Specifically, if a worker wanted, say, a promotion or a shift change, they'd be brought into a room with three or four men and it was like, 'Which one do you want? Which one are you going to serve?'"

If the government warrant itself outlined abuse, the workers should have been eligible for protected status. However, they were treated as criminals, not victims.

In another case in Louisiana, Indian workers were trafficked to the United States and housed in substandard conditions while their wages were held back, in order to pay back the $20,000 they were charged to come the United States to work at Signal Construction in New Orleans. After they walked out on their jobs en masse, the Department of Justice opened a trafficking investigation case acknowledging their victimization, yet refusing to protect them.

In past cases similar to Signal Construction, "continued presence" was automatically granted, allowing the workers to stay on in the United States while the case went ahead. According to Dan Werner of the Southern Poverty Law Center, "Continued presence is discretionary on the part of the Department of Justice, but people used to get processed on the spot. This delay is a new thing." The lawyers representing the Indian workers have been told they must submit their clients for deportation hearings.

The remedies available to victims of trafficking and crimes are known as "T" and "U" Visas, and 5,000 T visas and 10,000 U visas are available annually.

Congress created these visas to protect victims, particularly those who could serve as witnesses to crimes. However, these cases show a possible change in policy to deport instead of protect these victims.

Another shift in policy was reflected in the speed and manner in which the migrant workers in Iowa were prosecuted. According to a summary provided by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., after meeting with defense lawyers appointed by the court, the Agriprocessors workers quickly accepted guilty pleas on criminal charges including use of false identification documents to obtain employment, false use of a Social Security number or cards, and unlawful re-entry into the United States. In what U.S. attorney Matt Dummermuth called an "astonishing success," from May 20 through 23, in an emergency makeshift court set-up approved by Chief Judge Linda R. Reade, the workers were brought in groups of 10, their hands and feet shackled, and pressured to take plea deals.

The workers accepted the five-month sentences because prosecutors threatened they would charge anyone who didn't with felony identity theft. That carries a mandatory two-year minimum jail sentence. Most of the workers agreed to immediate deportation following completion of their sentences. The workers are also required to cooperate with any ongoing federal investigation of Agriprocessors. So why would the U.S. government move to deport workers it had just asked to serve as witnesses in a federal investigation? Perhaps it's telling that so far there have been no charges brought against Agriprocessors.

Polk County attorney Sonia Parras Konrad reportedly interviewed over 50 detainees who told her that Agriprocessors procured false identification for its immigrant employees; withheld money from their paychecks for "immigration fees"; didn't allow employees to use the restroom during 10-hour shifts; didn't compensate employees for overtime; and physically abused employees. Her lawsuit argues that the workers, as victims of these alleged crimes, should be eligible for special visas and that if they are transferred from Iowa they would be deprived of their rights under the Crime Victims' Rights Act. "As victims they would need to participate in the investigations of the alleged crimes and may be needed to testify as to personal experiences," the lawsuit said. It also claimed that some of the detained workers could be eligible for immigration relief because they have spouses and children who are U.S. citizens. But none of the issues were brought to light as the attorneys didn't have sufficient time.

Once the workers were arrested they were given criminal, rather than immigration lawyers--a clever way to complicate their cases and make them difficult to defend.

According to Josh Weir of Peck Law Firm in Iowa, in a rush to prosecute, "each attorney was assigned around 17 clients, had 7 days to build their cases and needed to involve interpreters and immigration counsel in the process." This resulted in the quickest prosecution of immigrants in history.

Had time been given for sufficient immigration counsel, these workers could have potentially applied for U visas.

The Department of Justice maintains that an investigation into Signal Construction is ongoing. But the Indian workers trafficked by the New Orleans construction company still languish in a park across the street from the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C., in the shadow of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. They are on hunger strike and demanding protective status, which still eludes them a year after their trafficking came to light.

Immigrants across the country are facing more aggressive enforcement tactics and it seems that victims of human trafficking and other crimes are no exception.

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