Sign Here or Starve: The Truth About Postville, Iowa
Over at the Sanctuary, Duke has posted the account of interpreter Erik Camayd-Freixas, who has gone into more depth then anyone about the proceedings in Postville, Iowa. I think it's one of the most valuable first-hand accounts of what happened in Postville and it also busts the myth of the criminality of these migrants. Some of my favorite quotes though, are the ones that humanize the migrants of which we have heard so little. You should read the whole thing here, but I'll highlight some of them below:
That first interview, though, took three hours. The client, a Guatemalan peasant afraid for his family, spent most of that time weeping at our table, in a corner of the crowded jailhouse visiting room. How did he come here from Guatemala? "I walked." What? "I walked for a month and ten days until I crossed the river." We understood immediately how desperate his family's situation was. He crossed alone, met other immigrants, and hitched a truck ride to Dallas, then Postville, where he heard there was sure work. He slept in an apartment hallway with other immigrants until employed. He had scarcely been working a couple of months when he was arrested. Maybe he was lucky: another man who began that Monday had only been working for 20 minutes. "I just wanted to work a year or two, save, and then go back to my family, but it was not to be." His case and that of a million others could simply be solved by a temporary work permit as part of our much overdue immigration reform. "The Good Lord knows I was just working and not doing anyone any harm." This man, like many others, was in fact not guilty. "Knowingly" and "intent" are necessary elements of the charges, but most of the clients we interviewed did not even know what a Social Security number was or what purpose it served. This worker simply had the papers filled out for him at the plant, since he could not read or write Spanish, let alone English. But the lawyer still had to advise him that pleading guilty was in his best interest. He was unable to make a decision. "You all do and undo," he said. "So you can do whatever you want with me." To him we were part of the system keeping him from being deported back to his country, where his children, wife, mother, and sister depended on him. He was their sole support and did not know how they were going to make it with him in jail for 5 months. None of the "options" really mattered to him. Caught between despair and hopelessness, he just wept. He had failed his family, and was devastated. I went for some napkins, but he refused them. I offered him a cup of soda, which he superstitiously declined, saying it could be "poisoned." His Native American spirit was broken and he could no longer think. He stared for a while at the signature page pretending to read it, although I knew he was actually praying for guidance and protection. Before he signed with a scribble, he said: "God knows you are just doing your job to support your families, and that job is to keep me from supporting mine." There was my conflict of interest, well put by a weeping, illiterate man.
Those interpreters who left after the first week were spared the sentencing hearings that went on through Thursday. Those who came in fresh the second week were spared the jail visits over the weekend. Those of us who stayed both weeks came back from the different jails burdened by a close personal contact that judges and prosecutors do not get to experience: each individual tragedy multiplied by 306 cases. One of my colleagues began the day by saying "I feel a tremendous solidarity with these people." Had we lost our impartiality? Not at all: that was our impartial and probably unanimous judgment. We had seen attorneys hold back tears and weep alongside their clients. We would see judges, prosecutors, clerks, and marshals do their duty, sometimes with a heavy heart, sometimes at least with mixed feelings, but always with a particular solemnity not accorded to the common criminals we all are used to encountering in the judicial system. Everyone was extremely professional and outwardly appreciative of the interpreters. We developed among ourselves and with the clerks, with whom we worked closely, a camaraderie and good humor that kept us going. Still, that Monday morning I felt downtrodden by the sheer magnitude of the events. Unexpectedly, a sentencing hearing lifted my spirits.
Most of them chose not to say anything, but one who was the more articulate said humbly: "Your honor, you know that we are here because of the need of our families. I beg that you find it in your heart to send us home before too long, because we have a responsibility to our children, to give them an education, clothing, shelter, and food." The good judge explained that unfortunately he was not free to depart from the sentence provided for by their Plea Agreement. Technically, what he meant was that this was a binding 11(C)(1)(c) Plea Agreement: he had to accept it or reject it as a whole. But if he rejected it, he would be exposing the defendants to a trial against their will. His hands were tied, but in closing he said onto them very deliberately: "I appreciate the fact that you are very hard working people, who have come here to do no harm. And I thank you for coming to this country to work hard. Unfortunately, you broke a law in the process, and now I have the obligation to give you this sentence. But I hope that the U.S. government has at least treated you kindly and with respect, and that this time goes by quickly for you, so that soon you may be reunited with your family and friends." The defendants thanked him, and I saw their faces change from shame to admiration, their dignity restored. I think we were all vindicated at that moment.
Erik Camayd-Freixas - The Sanctuary (13 June 2008)