Nearly a year ago, on May 12, 2008, we witnessed the largest worksite raid in US history when ICE stormed the Agriprocessor’s meat packing plaint in Postville, Iowa. The massive raid lead to the arrest and criminal prosecution of nearly 400 undocumented workers, mostly uneducated Guatemalan farmers. Federal prosecutors, in conjunction with ICE, cynically used the federal identity theft statute and criminal sentencing guidelines to coerce an overwhelming majority of the workers into guilty pleas for crimes they could not have logically committed. In many cases the workers had no idea they were even pleading guilty to a crime. Further exacerbating the debacle, the government did little to create even the semblance of due process. Workers were detained by ICE on the grounds of the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa where they were processed like livestock through a conviction-deportation assembly line with limited access to criminal defense counsel, and almost no access to immigration attorneys. The entire spectacle was a national disgrace and remains a stain on our judicial system.
Thankfully, this year things appear to be a little different. Elections have consequences. And last November’s was no exception. The Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu reported on Sunday that homeland security secretary Janet Nepolitano has delayed ICE worksite raids while DHS reviews its immigration enforcement policy, with an eye on re-evaluating targets. http://tinyurl.com/d62vax. And Nepolitano is not the only one skeptical of the raids policy. The Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, has spoken out quite forcefully against ICE raids, calling them “Un-American.”[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tytKpD6b548]
This is a promising sign.
Clearly, President Obama remains under pressure to continue Bush’s nearly exclusive targeting of undocumented workers as the perpetrators of illegal immigration. Yet, the administration appears to understand that the real villains are the bad actor employers who attract undocumented workers to the U.S., only to victimize them with appalling working conditions and substandard wages. A DHS worksite enforcement policy that targets abusive employers and recognizes that the undocumented workers are victims, not criminals, would be an important first step toward the amelioration of the repressive immigration policies of the past 8 years. And it might even begin to change the hateful tone of the national immigration debate into a realistic discussion about how best to develop a functional, orderly, safe, and humane immigration system which includes a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers in the U.S.