WASHINGTON (JTA) – Witnesses at recent congressional hearings described the federal immigration raid on the country’s largest kosher plant as a travesty of justice, a national disgrace and an ambush.
But comparing the government detention facilities where 300 illegal workers arrested in the May 12 raid were detained to concentration camps was too much for one of the officials involved.
“Personally and professionally, I find that quite offensive,” said Marcy Forman, the director of the Office of Investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the lead agency in the raid. “Being of the Jewish faith, I equate concentration camps to the murder of over 6 million individuals.”
Forman told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on July 24 that the arrested workers had food, beds and televisions, as well as access to competent legal counsel.
“Most concentration camps that I’ve become aware of don’t possess those items,” she said.
The hearing, convened by the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), shifted the focus from Agriprocessors, the kosher meat producer that has been under intense scrutiny since the raid at its packing plant in Postville, Iowa, to the conduct of various federal agencies.
In a hearing room packed with onlookers, it was Forman and a senior Department of Justice official, Deborah Rhodes, in the dock as the government faced the first sustained examination of its policy of bringing criminal charges against illegal immigrants. In the past, the immigrants typically were held on administrative grounds and deported.
According to Forman and Rhodes, a near-heroic feat of law enforcement was performed in Postville. The government arrested and processed more than 300 non-English-speaking illegal immigrants in a matter of days, all while protecting their constitutional rights and making allowances for humanitarian concerns.
But a broad range of critics – from elected officials to legal experts to those with firsthand knowledge of the legal proceedings and the raid’s aftermath – painted a much different picture.
In their view, the government employed heavy-handed tactics, destroyed the economy and social fabric of a tiny town, and left a small Catholic church to care for hundreds of people robbed of their primary breadwinner.
Critics blasted the government’s so-called “fast tracking” of detainees, alleging that defendants were provided inadequate access to lawyers, some of whom were assigned to represent more than a dozen workers.
Perhaps most significant, the government is accused of presenting detainees with a near-impossible choice. Most could either plead guilty to aggravated identity theft or Social Security fraud, which under the agreement offered by prosecutors would send them to jail for five months before they were deported, or refuse the plea and go to trial.
With the latter option, the detainees could wait up to six months in jail without bail and face the possibility of a two-year mandatory sentence. Ultimately they still faced deportation, whether they were found guilty or not.
“Needless to say the scheme left little room for the fundamental protections offered by the Constitution,” David Leopold, the national vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the committee. “The spectacle was a national disgrace.”
Perhaps the most anticipated testimony was that of Erik Camayd-Freixas, a federally certified translator who had a front-row seat to the legal proceedings in Iowa.
Camayd-Freixas wrote a damning essay last month about the proceedings, earning him a news story in The New York Times and an accompanying editorial headlined “The Shame of Postville.” It was Camayd-Freixas who compared the detention facilities to a concentration camp.
He testified that the detainees, many of them illiterate, poor and with a spotty understanding of Spanish – many of them speak native tongues – had only a tenuous grasp of the charges pending against them. Guilty pleas were obtained under duress, Camayd-Freixas said, from defendants who didn’t know what a Social Security number was, let alone that they had stolen one.
“I saw the Bill of Rights denied,” Camayd-Freixas said. “And it all appeared to be within the framework of the law.”
While the committee dealt mainly with issues related to the Postville raid, the larger and thornier debate over national immigration policy hovered over the hearing. Democratic and Republican members traded barbs over the issue during the nearly six-hour inquiry, which was interrupted twice for floor votes.
“We have a schizophrenic country,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), noting that calls for a temporary worker program would fail unless enforcement was taken seriously.
Lungren said the hearings seemed to focus on the supposed failures of a government agency, but in fact further investigation might find that Immigration and Customs Enforcement did things properly.
“We’ll keep looking,” Lofgren interjected.
While Republican members tended to focus on the need for stepped-up enforcement and Democrats more on the supposed violations of individual rights, all seemed to agree on one thing: The nation’s immigration system is badly in need of repair.
Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who represents part of Postville, reiterated his concern that the government is focusing its enforcement on the wrong people. It is the employers, Braley told the committee, who need to be prosecuted.
“There is no doubt that workers who violate the law need to be held accountable,” Braley said. “However, while ICE has been effective in finding and detaining undocumented employees who may have broken the law, I’m equally concerned that the employer, Agriprocessors, be fully investigated and prosecuted for any violations of the law.”
Two supervisors at Agriprocessors have pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting the use of illegal documents. A warrant is out for the arrest of a third supervisor.
The owners of the company have denied any knowledge of wrongdoing.