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Immigration raid case scrutinized

U.S. prosecutors' rapid-fire court processing may have violated defendants' rights, the ACLU says.

August 01, 2008|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials who prosecuted hundreds of illegal immigrants arrested at an Iowa meatpacking plant in May used a government-created manual to speed through guilty pleas, a potential violation of the rights of those detained in the raid, the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday.

The manual was assembled before the workers were arrested or their lawyers were appointed. It lays out suggested guilty pleas for the arrested workers and specifies how they should waive their legal rights.

It includes detailed scripts for judges and lawyers to recite. One suggests the judge say, "I want each of you to state your name, so I'll know who you are." The manual ends with forms for sentencing and deportation.

ACLU lawyers said the scripts and the rapid-fire sentencing procedure had raised concerns that the Bush administration subverted fundamentals of legal justice in its push for an enforcement victory.

"The government's tactics really undermined the constitutional protections of due process and presumption of innocence," ACLU staff attorney Monica Ramirez said.

Justice Department officials denied the allegations.

"They're off-base with that," said Sean Berry, chief of the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "This is not some document to railroad people; this allows defense counsel to prepare their clients."

Questions about the immigration raid -- the largest in U.S. history -- have intensified since agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the Agriprocessors Inc. meatpacking plant in Postville on May 12. Lawmakers have held hearings on the raid and have promised to take action. Religious organizations and advocacy groups are spotlighting the case as well.

Advocates, immigration lawyers and translators question the deal offered to the Postville workers, who were told they could either plead guilty to aggravated identity theft, with a minimum two-year sentence, or accept a reduced charge and spend a year or less in jail. The lesser charge also would require the workers surrender more of their legal rights.

Groups of 17 workers, mostly uneducated Guatemalans, were each represented by a single criminal defense lawyer. Workers appeared before judges in similarly large groups for sentencing.

They had limited access to lawyers specializing in immigration issues.

Advocates of tighter immigration controls have defended the process at Postville.

"Each defendant was provided a criminal defense attorney, and it was up to those defense attorneys to ensure due process," Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said.

But other lawmakers and attorneys have said the conditions set up by the Justice Department made adequate representation all but impossible.

Justice Department lawyers gave the workers seven days to accept a plea bargain that a "majority of them didn't understand," said Erik Camayd-Freixas, a translator for many of the workers.

The time pressures meant that lawyers spent an hour or less with individual clients and had little time to formulate strategies or objections, said Robert Rigg, a professor at Drake University Law School in Des Moines.

Nearly 400 workers were arrested, and more than 300 were charged. All but a few were sentenced by May 22, eight business days after the raid.

Lawmakers also have asked why only two managers had been arrested and have questioned whether the raid will affect an ongoing Department of Labor investigation of possible violations at the Agriprocessors plant, including alleged child labor and sexual abuse.

Berry, of the U.S. attorney's office, said scripts were commonplace for lawyers and judges to keep track of complicated issues.

He said he did not know who had assembled the manuals or who determined the ratio of lawyers to workers.

Berry refused to answer questions about who imposed the seven-day limit for workers to decide on guilty pleas or why, saying they touched on an ongoing investigation.

But he said the proceedings did not violate due process.

"The defendants all had qualified court-appointed federal counsel," Berry said.

"They had judges take their guilty pleas and ascertain their pleas were knowing and voluntary."


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