Q&A: Erik Camayd Freixas

The federal court interpreter gives an insideru2019s account of the justice system after one of the largest immigration raids in U.S. history.

By Julianne Hing Jan 06, 2009

ColorLines: You arrived in Postville, Iowa, last May immediately after an immigration raid at a meatpacking plant led to the arrests of nearly 400 workers—many of them Guatemalan. Can you describe the scene?

Erik Camayd-Freixas:
These raids are paramilitary operations. Their distribution and resources, their trailers, is all based on a military plan. It was very, very tight security. It was a bit ridiculous. There were hundreds of armed agents. A trailer and buildings were all armed. There was one trailer alone that was an actual arsenal. And there were little guys all over the gymnasium where the detainees were held. They also had an evacuation plan in case of a riot for the civilians. It was very much Guantanamo-style.

Judges and prosecutors never get to see the real human situation up close because they don’t get to interview the defendants in private. So they maintain[ed] a safe moral distance from what’s going on and avoided at all costs the individual circumstances of people’s cases from coming up in court.

The very few that were mentioned–in fact I only saw one–was of a Ukrainian woman, were absolutely heart-wrenching, that they gave nobody else a chance to talk about their own situation. Her young daughter was so ill and needed an operation or she would die. She came to the U.S. to work to save her daughter in Ukraine. From that safe moral distance it’s very easy to prosecute and convict and condemn.

If you saw what these people are going through as parents, it’s an absolute violation of human rights. In jail, whenever people cried telling their stories, they never cried for themselves, but for their children and what they would have to go through.

ColorLines: After that experience you wrote a widely circulated essay that was noted for the thoroughness and candor with which you described the ICE raid and legal processes associated with it. What prompted you to write it?

Erik Camayd-Freixas: Aside from the obvious injustice of it all, it was quite outrageous, because I’ve been associated with the federal court for twenty-three years. And I’m very protective of the federal court. I’ve always seen it as a bastion of justice. I felt in this situation the federal court was co-opted and manipulated into a situation. I felt like the court was being manipulated into the situation by immigration enforcement.

The other thing that prompted me to write the piece was the fact that it was getting little to no national coverage. I thought that was very disturbing because what I was witnessing I saw as an attack on the Constitution and an attack on democracy.

When the lawyers and interpreters went to the jail interviews, to meet one on one, we spent hours and hours interviewing people and getting their whole story. I told one of those stories in my essay. There was a man who walked for forty days from Guatemala to the United States. That was just one story in my essay, imagine the other 269 stories of people sitting in jail. I don’t think the national conscience could handle it. The only way to do this is to turn a blind eye to these things. Immigrants become numbers.

The final reason was that when I got home, I felt a certain amount of guilt for having participated in such a procedure. I felt dirty. I wrote it with that intention and circulated it to the other twenty-five interpreters who were there with me and to a federal judge who was there. But in the next few days I started receiving hundreds of e-mails from people across the country, thanking me, sharing their own testimonials. All together I’ve received a couple thousand e-mails and postcards and handwritten mail, from all over the country and from all over the world, including several from Postville who said, “This is not who we are. I am ashamed about what is happening.”

It’s been a moving and encouraging experience. Within two weeks of giving my approval to distribute the essay, thousands of people had read it, and it had made it to Congress. I got a call from Congress. An aide said, “I’ve read your essay and been totally blown away. This is not the way we do business. Would you come to testify?” My essay had prompted a congressional investigation.

ColorLines: Can you describe the difficulty of explaining these legal proceedings to the detained workers? The options they had to choose from — five months in prison and then deportation, to indefinite detention with no possibility of bail, these were all just false options.

Erik Camayd-Freixas: Any person could tell that these so-called options were no options at all. We had to put it very simply. They basically gave the lawyers a fifteen or 20-page plea agreement to read into Spanish to them. And for most of the detainees, Spanish was a second language for them, and even if they understood the Spanish they never would have understood the legal jargon. It was hard enough for me to understand it.

We had to say, “Okay, if you plead guilty, you get five months and get deported, but if you plead not guilty, you face a trial. If convicted guilty you get a minimum of two years.” They would say, “Trial?? I cannot win. I know I have no rights.” And the lawyers and interpreters, we would say, “Yes, you do!” And they would say, “No we don’t. I’m illegal.” They would look at us with a smile like they had pity for us and how little we understood about the U.S. “They’re telling us we have rights, but here we are in jail. What cloud did you come from?”

The judges and prosecutors were so squeamish, without ever having to deal with the true moral burden of finding out the human impact and the life stories of these people. And it was left to the attorneys and interpreters to bear the pounding of this terrible human plight.

It was all based on a terrible injustice, the same type of prosecutorial strategies used with drug dealers and murderers: threatening them with a bogus inflated charge of aggravated identity theft in order to get them to plead guilty to a lesser charge that branded them as criminal aliens and barred them from ever entering the U.S. legally.

The whole thing was unjust and cruel. The survival of these families’ children was being held ransom over their heads in order to get these immigrants to plead guilty and get deported. People must know, regardless of whether or not they were undocumented, anybody who comes to our courts has the same bill of rights, the same constitutional rights that anyone.

ColorLines: Can you describe how the government handled the fast-tracking and legal proceedings for the hundreds of immigrants that had to be processed?

Camayd-Freixas: Immigration lawyers were not allowed in during these proceedings. Only criminal lawyers were. And yet, the consequences of pleading guilty are very, very desperate for immigrants with families in the U.S., especially U.S.-born children. There were immigration lawyers ready, groups in Waterloo and Postville and in Des Moines who had immigration lawyers ready to volunteer, who wanted to take this pro bono but they were not allowed in because of the “criminal proceedings” taking place.

When they arraigned the first appearance, the magistrate would say after the arraignment, “I understand there’s an immigrant detainer so I’m going to order them detained and there will be no bail hearing.” Contrary to criminal court proceedings, these poor workers had no right to bail because of the immigration detainer. But immigration lawyers were not allowed in because these were supposedly criminal proceedings! The magistrates themselves had no idea that denying these people bail would result later in coerced pleas on the part of the workers.

They are doing their own brand of immigration reform without Congress’s approval. The Department of Homeland Security and ICE have been accused of this many times. But now they’ve also taken over the role of the judiciary. This is an assault on democracy.

ColorLines: Can you explain the difference between criminal court proceedings and immigration proceedings?

Camayd-Freixas: When these criminal attorneys called their immigration attorney colleagues to consult, to ask, “What really am I dealing with here?” they found out not to get too heroic. It was obvious that none of these people was actually guilty of aggravated identity theft and that it would be nearly impossible to prove that in court. But the more you fight for your clients the more you can bury them. Let’s say for example the person gets acquitted. But now, they’re still under immigration detention, so they go to jail, which can go on indefinitely until they get a deportation hearing, and that can take over a year. And the more you fight the longer you stay in jail without habeas corpus, without charges ever being filed against you.

ColorLines: Have you seen anything like this before?

Camayd-Freixas: It’s just a system that is tyrannical. Many Americans don’t have the foggiest idea what is going on in their country. Americans who were born here take democracy for granted. I was born in Cuba. The stuff I saw reminded me of growing up in a totalitarian regime. Democracy is something you need to defend. It starts getting perverted this way.

This whole anti-immigrant attitude is a result of September 11, and unfortunately, we are losing the War on Terror because we have internalized this terror. We are inflicting it on our own population. We are doing the terrorists’ job for them. They couldn’t have done it better. Now we are denying civil liberties to people in our country. We are arresting people faster than we can deport them.

In Laurel, Mississippi, where there was the latest raid, the legal scandal was they only file criminal charges against eight defendants out of 595 detained workers. You can say, that’s a partial victory, but the other 500 got sent to a detention center in Jena, Louisiana, to a private jail. This jail, Jena, has some of the nastiest civil rights violations associated with it. So now they’re in indefinite detention. What kind of victory is it?

The ones in Postville got sent all over Iowa to different jails. But the problem is they have no federal detention centers and they’ve started being taken out of state, away from their legal support and their families. Now, the tragedy of it is that their families cannot find them.

ColorLines: What impact have the Postville raids had on people’s families back in Guatemala?

Camayd-Freixas: Guatemala has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition among children in the Western hemisphere, right there with Haiti. So, reports I’ve heard, from people who’ve gone to Guatemala are that families are suffering malnutrition while their main breadwinners are in the U.S. in detention.

We forget that we live in a globalized world. This immigration crisis is related to free trade agreements that have displaced millions of works in Mexico and Central America and all over the world. What choice do people in Mexico and Central America have?

What do we do by closing the border, with immigration raids deporting 300,000 a year, increasingly shutting off the relief valve into poor local economies? What happens is you cause civil unrest over there. In the past, wherever there has been civil unrest we have backed up very repressive governments. We have created this globalized problem.

ColorLines: Have any of the responses to your essay given you any hope?

I remember a letter I got from Postville from a sewer worker. He wrote so eloquently, and said, “I just cannot wrap my mind around what has happened here. There is nothing I can hang my hat on as to why they would torment my neighbors and friends like this. Thank you for your essay. At least people are talking about it now so that future generations will look back with shame. I know there are people doing good and I am very proud to see high school students helping these families out, fourth and fifth-generation German immigrants donating food to these families. I have seen the worst and best in humanity.”