Faces of Justice Denied - Immigrant Workers in Iowa

Document Date: December 10, 2010

Hundreds of immigrant workers in Iowa arrested and convicted en masse in one week without adequate legal representation, then deported without any court review

On May 12, 2008, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted the largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history at Agriprocessors, Inc., a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. In Postville, ICE initially arrested 389 workers for using Social Security or alien registration numbers that did not belong to them . The majority of the workers were indigenous Mayans recruited and brought to the U.S. from Guatemala by a U.S. company.

Three days after the raid, on May 15, 2008, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Iowa charged 306 of the arrested workers criminally for allegedly using false documents in relation to their employment. The principal charge brought against 270 of the arrested workers was not just ordinary document fraud, but rather the extraordinary charge of aggravated identity theft. Many of Agriprocessors’ immigrant workers purchased false documents to obtain employment, often at the suggestion of Agriprocessors management.

Within seven days, 300 of the workers had pled guilty to knowingly using false Social Security numbers or other false employment documents. The U.S. Attorney’s Office offered non-negotiable, seven-day “exploding” plea agreements to all defendants. Few if any of the workers received individualized court proceedings. Arraignments and pleas were completed en masse. Court-appointed attorneys had little time to meet with their clients, and each of the 18 court-appointed attorneys represented 17 defendants on average. The circumstances, with multiple defendants represented by a single lawyer; complex immigration issues; significant language, educational and cultural barriers; and the extreme time limit, made adequate legal defense, investigation and counseling almost impossible.

Within days, the Postville defendants waived all of their rights—including their right to indictment, to court reporters, to review the pre-sentence investigation report, and to appeal their convictions and sentences—and pled guilty. The formulaic guilty pleas demanded by prosecutors almost universally required the immigrant workers to accept mandatory stipulated judicial orders of deportation. These orders barred any further consideration of their immigration status or claims, though they may have had valid claims for immigration relief or ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Under the circumstances, hundreds of workers were railroaded into pleas that separated them from their families and resulted in permanent exclusion from the U.S.