Revolution#131, June 1, 2008

Fascist Immigration Raids and Kangaroo Trials in Iowa

From May 19 to May 22, nearly 300 immigrant workers were railroaded through a makeshift federal criminal court set up at the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in Waterloo, Iowa—given five-month prison sentences, after which they will be deported out of the U.S. These immigrants were caught in a massive round-up on Monday, May 12, when armed agents swooped down on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in the town of Postville with arrest warrants for almost 700 out of the 968 workers there. Officials said that the raid—involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security) along with more than a dozen other federal, state, and local agencies—was the largest immigration raid at a single workplace in U.S. history.

The agents took away 389 immigrant workers from the meatpacking plant that day. This is part of the intensifying fascist offensive targeting immigrants in this country—including raids at workplaces and neighborhoods, mobilization of right-wing vigilantes, draconian anti-immigrant laws passed by cities and states, building of walls and other stepped-up military measures at the border, etc. On May 23, ICE announced that their agents had made more than 900 arrests in California in a three-week “sting” operation to catch people under deportation orders. Last year alone, ICE deported 275,000 immigrants.

According to the government, the immigrants arrested at Agriprocessors are “guilty” of fraud—of using fake Social Security numbers and other documents. These workers—mostly from Guatemala—are among the millions of people from Central America, Mexico, and other parts of the world who could no longer feed themselves and their families in their home countries where the economies and whole societies have been devastated because of imperialist domination and plunder. They traveled north, often risking their lives to cross the deserts at the U.S./Mexico border, and came to work at the meatpacking plant in rural Iowa, forced to endure extremely dangerous conditions for low pay. In order to get these jobs, the immigrants had to get IDs through whatever means available. And now they are branded as “criminals” for this.

The huge raid at Agriprocessors—which suddenly put more than 10 percent of Postville’s 2,500 residents in prison—has devastated and terrorized the immigrants and the whole town (and has sent tremors through immigrant communities across the U.S.). The day after, half of the local school system’s 600 students were absent because their parents were arrested or were in hiding. The school superintendent said that the situation “is like a natural disaster—only this one is manmade.” Hundreds of immigrants took refuge in a local church. Dozens of local businesses shut down. One business owner told the British paper Globe and Mail, “We got raped and we got plundered and we got pillaged Monday. Everybody in this town ought to be angry.” (“Hardening the line on illegal workers,” May 23, 2008)

Criminalizing Immigrant Workers

But the size of the raid is not the only thing that is very alarming about what has been happening here. In the past, immigrants caught without “proper documents” have usually been brought before immigration hearings and charged with visa violation, which is a civil law matter. But in an unprecedented move, the government hit the hundreds of workers arrested in the Agriprocessors raid with criminal charges—for simply working without “proper” legal documents. This is a clear and dangerous escalation in the government’s move to criminalize undocumented immigrants—and to drive them even deeper into a caste-like status where they are brutally exploited with the constant threat of jail and deportation over their heads. Juliet Stumpf, an immigration law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, told the New York Times, “To my knowledge, the magnitude of these indictments is completely unprecedented. It’s the reliance on criminal process here as part of an immigration enforcement action that takes this out of the ordinary, a startling intensification of the criminalization of immigration law.” (“270 Illegal Immigrant Workers Sent to Prison in Federal Push,” May 24, 2008)

For the four days of the mass trials at the fairgrounds, the immigrant prisoners were held in a concentration camp-like setup behind barbed wire fences patrolled by armed guards. The immigrants—hands cuffed and with shackles on their legs—were brought into the temporary courtrooms in groups to enter their plea, and then moved to another room for sentencing.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union and others, the federal prosecutors forced the immigrants to accept plea bargains—by threatening that if the immigrants did not plead guilty to a “lesser” charge and go along with this “deal,” they would be hit with more serious criminal charges of identity theft. The heavier charges would have carried a mandatory sentence of at least 2 years, along with large fines.

And the immigrants were blatantly stripped of their rights to legal counsel and due process of law—which supposedly apply to anyone in this country, regardless of their status. A May 21 ACLU statement described the totally unjust proceedings that have been taking place in Iowa: “Groups of more than 20 meatpacking workers are typically represented by a single defense lawyer who for each group must decide complex immigration issues, assess criminal liability and counsel clients who do not speak English. The lawyers, who do not specialize in immigration law, must complete this task under the pressure of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s arbitrary plea bargain deadline of seven days. Within this deadline every lawyer and client must make a potentially irrevocable decision to plead guilty and go to jail and lose any immigration rights or fight the criminal charges and face up to two or more years in prison for allegedly engaging in ‘identity theft’ in order to work.

“The groups of immigrants are rushed through mass hearings that last only minutes and during the hearings are required to waive their right to an immigration hearing in exchange for better criminal plea agreements. Workers with legitimate claims to remain in the country legally—including immigrants with family members who are U.S. citizens or with legitimate claims of asylum or political persecution—are ostensibly barred from pursuing those claims under the criminal plea agreements.”

In a May 22 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) expressed “grave concern” for “the apparent disregard of the rights to meaningful assistance of counsel and due process” for those caught up in the Agriprocessors raid. The AILA pointed out what they called a “most striking” point: The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa issued a press release on May 12—the very day of the raid at Agriprocessors—announcing the temporary assignment of federal judges and court personnel to Waterloo “in response to the…prosecution of numerous illegal aliens…” As the AILA notes, this press release was issued “before any of those arrested and charged had been found to be an ‘illegal alien.’”

In other words, the U.S. government has been openly operating in this case on the outrageous principle that the immigrants are presumed guilty of what they are charged with even before any kind of trial.

The Fascist Clampdown—And the Need
for Resistance

Agriprocessors—the biggest kosher meatpacking plant in this country—opened on the edge of Postville in 1987. At first, the company hired mostly workers from the former Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe. The Globe & Mail noted, “As Stephen Bloom, the author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, puts it, the Eastern Europeans didn’t work at Agriprocessors a day longer than was absolutely necessary. As soon as they were established, they moved on to better paying, less dangerous jobs.”

Through the 1990s, the workforce at Agriprocessors became mainly Latino—first from Mexico, and then later mainly from Guatemala. A 2006 exposé in the Jewish Daily Forward revealed the kind of conditions that the workers face at the plant: “One of those workers—a woman who agreed to be identified by the pseudonym Juana—came to this rural corner of Iowa a year ago from Guatemala. Since then, she has worked 10-to-12-hour night shifts, six nights a week. Her cutting hand is swollen and deformed, but she has no health insurance to have it checked. She works for wages, starting at $6.25 an hour and stopping at $7, that several industry experts described as the lowest of any slaughterhouse in the nation. Juana and other employees at Agriprocessors…receive virtually no safety training. This is an anomaly in an industry in which the tools are designed to cut and grind through flesh and bones. In just one month last summer, two young men required amputations; workers say there have been others since. The chickens and cattle fly by at a steady clip on metal hooks, and employees said they are berated for not working fast enough.”

Juana said, “Being here, you see a lot of injustice. But it’s a small town. It’s the only factory here. We have no choice.” (“In Iowa Meat Plant, Kosher ‘Jungle’ Breeds Fear, Injury, Short Pay,” May 26, 2006)

Such super-exploitation has made undocumented immigrant workers indispensable to the capitalist rulers. They need these immigrants to keep the U.S. economy profitable—and the money that the workers send back home has also helped to maintain stability in those countries in the interests of imperialism. But at the same time, there is an intense contradiction for the rulers, who face the necessity of strengthening the whole “cohering glue” of society—to “keep it all together” from the standpoint of their interests. In this light, the presence of millions of people in this country who are living “outside the law” presents serious problems for the rulers, and they are moving viciously to terrorize and clamp down on immigrants, as well as those who come to their aid. And the kind of blatant violation of basic rights going on through this—as seen in the mass trials of the Agriprocessors workers—is part of the overall ramping up of repression and fascistic “norms” in this country.

What is happening to immigrants in this country today is like the rounding up of Jews and others in Nazi Germany. The urgent question is: Will these horrors be allowed to go on, with only a few voices raised by people of conscience…or will there be a huge uproar and determined resistance throughout society to bring these crimes to a stop?  

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