Railroad Justice Run Amok

Thursday, July 31, 2008
George Tzamaras

WASHINGTON, DC - As more and more information about the planning, execution and aftermath of the Postville, Iowa raid on the Agriprocessors facility comes to light, it has become increasingly apparent that this was a travesty of justice. And this travesty could not have occurred without the full complicity of the federal district court for the northern district of Iowa.

From the beginning, the actions of the people that our system relies on to preserve justice were literally scripted to result in convictions and deportations. A "Handbook" was provided by the court to the court-appointed counsel for the detainees that included not only a pre-written "script" for the judge, but extensive waivers of rights that government officials, in Congressional testimony just last week, said had been followed. The "Handbook," released by the ACLU today, is in essence a lawyer's guide to how to get your client convicted and deported. The scripts the judicial officers were provided, which included predetermined rulings on such fundamental matters as detention determinations, strongly suggest improper interference with the judicial process by the prosecuting arm of the government.

According to AILA President Charles Kuck, "This 'Handbook' illustrates that railroad justice was the rule of the day, and that the Iowa federal district court was driving the train, fatally compromising its own integrity as an independent branch of government. AILA is appalled by this collusion between prosecutor and judge."

On May 12, 2008, federal immigration agents, with full military-like force, descended on nearly 400 workers who toiled in reportedly intolerable conditions at the Agriprocessors meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa. The government herded them into the National Cattle Congress where, in makeshift federal courtrooms, it bypassed the usual immigration courts procedures and instead mass-processed the defendants, mostly uneducated Guatemalan farmers, through a federal court crimination conviction and deportation assembly line in a matter of days. The government piled on excessive criminal charges through an "exploding plea bargain" (sign the deal within 7 days of arrest or face maximum prosecution with 2-year mandatory minimum sentences) which required detainees to forfeit all possible immigration relief. Most are now serving 5-month federal prison terms which will be followed by immediate deportation.

As vividly described by Professor Erik Camayd-Freixas in his essay Interpreting after the Largest ICE Raid in U.S. History: A Personal Account, the workers were shackled in groups of 10, assembled and, like the livestock prepared for slaughter at Agriprocessors, they were packaged, convicted, and ordered deported. Shockingly, many of the workers appear not to have understood they were pleading to identity theft but thought they were pleading guilty to having worked in the U.S. without proper documentation-a civil violation. Indeed, first hand accounts and press reports raise serious questions as to whether many of the defendants were even guilty of identity theft, as charged.

AILA Vice-President David Leopold, who presented testimony about the Postville raid in a Congressional hearing last week, stated, "The entire assembly line, cookie cutter conviction system implemented in Postville is a culmination of months of overreaching and police-state-like tactics by the federal government. Postville is yet another example of this administration's total disregard for the rule of law and, indeed, their contempt for democracy and the principles which have made this country great. To shackle, process and convict poor uneducated workers, and, at the same time, insist their lawyers follow a 'How to Convict and Deport Your Client Handbook,' courtesy of the U.S. Attorney's Office and U.S. District Court, works a profound travesty of justice."

The Postville raid and conviction scheme raises deep and disturbing legal and ethical questions about the propriety of the legal process used, the involvement of the Court, and legitimacy of the convictions. "AILA demands an immediate and comprehensive investigation of the fast-tracking system used by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Court to criminalize the workers at the Cattle Congress in Iowa so that the legitimacy of their convictions may be appropriately assessed and remedied," Kuck concluded.


The American Immigration Lawyers Association is the national association of immigration lawyers established to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members. For more information call George Tzamaras at 202-507-7649 or Annie Wilson at 202-507-7653.

Cite as AILA Doc. No. 08073161.