ACLU Demands Government Restore Basic Legal Protections To Meatpacking Workers Arrested In Iowa Raids

May 21, 2008 12:00 am

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DES MOINES, IA– The American Civil Liberties Union sharply condemns the denial of basic legal protections to immigrant workers arrested in Postville, Iowa meatpacking raids last week and calls on the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to eliminate arbitrary and unreasonable deadlines for mass plea bargains. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and DHS have implemented a troubling system that appears to be designed to undermine fairness and due process by criminally prosecuting the over 300 immigrant workers for identity theft and fraud and rushing them through criminal proceedings with insufficient legal representation.

“The tactics of the prosecutors, the arbitrary plea deadlines, the complexity of the cases, the overwhelming number of cases per lawyer and the language barriers that make representation especially difficult suggest that the government is more interested in getting people deported without hearings than in achieving justice,” said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Ben Stone. “Instead of concocting a system that violates fundamental American values of due process and fairness, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and DHS must ensure fair procedures and effective legal counsel under the bedrock principles that govern our legal system.”

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 “identify 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.

Law professor Bob Rigg of Drake Law School said, “Instead of ensuring sufficient time to analyze complex immigration and criminal law issues, the prosecutors are issuing arbitrary ‘take-it-or-leave it’ demands to lawyers who are overwhelmed with clients, language barriers and devastating immigration consequences that require careful consultation with experts. Nothing forced the government to steamroll the process, overload the attorneys or impose arbitrary deadlines. The tactics seem clearly designed to force these workers to give up their legal rights under the immigration system.”

Executive Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Jeanne Butterfield said, “It is deeply troubling that the government is using its vast power to coerce countless individuals to abandon their rights under the immigration system without allowing time for a careful assessment of each case. These are complicated issues that cannot be decided on the fly. It is inconceivable that among the 300 workers arrested none has meritorious claims to be in this country under our country’s immigration laws.”

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