Posts Tagged ‘criminal’

Saint Patrick’s Day in Postville

March 25, 2009

Saint Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints.  Born to Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict who had been baptized by Saint Patrick, Bridget went on to found an important monastery in Kildare or Cill-dara, the “church of the oak.”  Her symbol is the Saint Brigid’s cross, representative of a time when she wove some reeds together to form a cross in the house of a dying peasant in order to teach him the Gospel story.

Driving into Postville, Iowa, on Saint Patrick’s Day, I was immediately struck by the ghost-town feel of the western half of this town that used to boast a population of 2,000.  Dozens of chicken-coop semi-trucks were parked outside the abandoned Agriprocessor’s slaughterhouse.  Hundreds of coops sat outside, vacant, waiting.  A piece of heavy machinery was driving through the property, disposing with some of the tons of junk littered around the lot.  With the whine of its engine, it seems to be disposing with the evidence of what happened here last May.

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

On this dusty day, one can hardly imagine the cacophony of sounds here before the ICE raid on May 12, 2008.  Chickens squawking, machines whirring, blades thudding, trucks chugging, people shouting to be heard over the din of machinery.  Spanish mixed with Yiddish mixed with Arabic numerals preceded by $ signs.

In this abandoned slaughterhouse site, though, it is all too easy to imagine the eerie silence when the machines stopped, when 900 ICE agents increased the town’s population by 40%, when 389 immigrants were detained and interned in a cattle barn, when the chickens lived to squawk some more and this peaceful Iowa town screeched to a halt.  Only five immigrant workers had prior criminal records, but all were sentenced with working under false documents.  (Bobo, Kim. Religious Leaders Protest Postville Raid)  The public defenders, the translators, the immigration judge – everyone had been told to keep this date open on their calendars, ensuring a speedy process where nearly all the immigrants from Central America pled guilty to charges they didn’t understand in hopes of reduced sentences.  Professional interpreter Camayd-Freixas was so appalled that he published his eyewitness account with the New York Times.

Just down the street, I sit with Father Ouderkirk for a half-hour.  He is the father of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church here in Postville, a safe haven for many of the terrorized families still remaining after that fateful day in May.  “You should have been here earlier,” this once-retired priest tells me.  “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this turns into the best restaurant in town.'”  Taking his job seriously as pastor to this reeling community, Ouderkirk serves Latino food to needy families on these days, in addition to working to provide housing funds for the scores of families who lost dads, moms, and children in this raid.  “You wouldn’t believe how much we spend each month, trying to keep a roof over their heads.”

Some of the women he serves at St. Bridget’s have been wearing an ankle bracelet for 10 months.  Some of the children haven’t seen or heard from their fathers for almost a year.  Many of the mothers are torn between returning to Central America to reunite with their husbands or staying here so their citizen children can receive a good education.  These families are facing excruciatingly difficult choices, choices one should never have to make.  Father Ouderkirk wipes with his handkerchief and tells me what we really need is comprehensive immigration reform.

As I leave Postville on Tuesday, the day after the mayor announced his resignation, the boarded-up windows and streams of For-Sale signs are a constant reminder that this town was dealt a devastating blow last May.  With a new administration and new DHS Secretary Napolitano, many are hopeful that the days of Postville and Oxford, Mississippi raids are over.  It is not enough, though, to merely hope that this administration will make the hard choices it must to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform wins out over high-profile, low-impact raids such as this.  We must make it very clear that criminalizing immigrant families is useless and inhumane, while opportunistic employers who lure workers under false pretenses (and, as here, actually provide the false identification documents to their unknowing workers) is the appropriate focus of workplace reform.  We must remind Obama that, if he is really attempting to out-do the New Deal, he should learn from FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins who shut down the Department of Labor division that was then carrying out workplace raids (Bobo, Kim). We must encourage Napolitano to ensure that such Sinclair-like Jungle conditions never occur again, where immigrants are both victimized and criminalized.  We must urge our judicial department to reexamine current immigration policies which allow such a rushed, clandestine mockery of Due Process.

Father Ouderkirk will be traveling to my home in Rochester on April 2, to give a presentation at Pax Christi Catholic Church.  I encourage anyone and everyone to come and hear this man of faith who is earnestly working for immigration reform.  For all those afar, it is vital that we do not forget such tragedies as Postville.  We must stare at such instances with unblinking eyes and learn from them.  Please urge our administration to do the same.

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

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Post-Postville America

March 6, 2009

Though it only occurred last May, the ICE raids in Postville, Iowa, keep resurfacing to the forefront of immigration policy in the United States. On February 25, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of a raid the day before. This raid on the Yamato Engine Specialists engine repair shop in Washington resulted in the arrest of 28 individuals and the first such raid under the new Obama administration (Stark, John and Anna Walters. Bellingham Herald). A top official suggested that Napolitano did not know of the raid beforehand, stating that, “She was not happy about it because it’s inconsistent with her position, and the president’s position on these matters.” The fate of these workers, most of whom await trial in a Tacoma detention center, will also signal the resolve of the Obama administration to focus more on noncompliant employers rather than the employees. So close to the events of Postville where nearly 400 immigrants were arrested and adjudicated in rapid fashion, Napolitano’s review of the raid will demonstrate how far we’ve come as a nation in ten months. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/washington/26immig.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y)

Also last week, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments of Flores-Figueroa v. United States. This case is a test case aimed at getting the Supreme Court to issue a binding national ruling on identity theft. 18 U.S.C. §1028 is an aggravated identity theft statute which extends criminal sentences by two years per charge. §1028 intersects with immigration law, however, when undocumented immigrants make up Social Security numbers which happen to belong to real people.

Six District Courts are evenly split over the extent of mens rea (foreknowledge) required for this crime. Currently, six District Courts are evenly divided in the interpretation of the ambiguous term “knowingly” within 18 U.S.C. §1028(a). The 4th, 8th, and 11th Courts have ruled no mens rea as to the person’s identity is necessary, while the 1st, 9th, and D.C. Circuits have ruled it a requirement. United States v. Villanueva-Sotelo, 380 U.S. App. D.C. 11, 515 F.3d 1234 (D.C. Cir. 2008)(explaining necessity for mens rea because theft is not mere misappropriation); United States v. Sanchez, 2008 U.S. Dist. Lexis 35460 (E.D.N.Y. April 30, 2008)(requiring government to prove scienter for identity theft); United States v. Mejorada-Cordova, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44634 (D. Utah, June 5, 2008); United States v. Salazar-Montero, 520 F. Supp. 2d 1079 (N.D. Iowa 2007) (mens rea needed due to statutory ambiguity).

“There’s a basic problem here,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.. “You get an extra two years if it just so happens that the number you picked out of the air belonged to somebody else.” Kevin Russell, attorney for the defendant, is arguing that, at the very least, the rule of lenity requires that ambiguous statutes such as §1028 be resolved in favor of the defendant in criminal cases. Ignacio Flores-Figueroa worked with false identification for years at a steel plant in Illinois. After six years, he changed his false identification documents and was arrested shortly thereafter. The Eighth Circuit convicted Flores on the basis that he knowingly used false identification, despite the fact he was ignorant of a true person’s identity. (Faitek, Adam. New York Times)

10 months ago in Iowa, 270 of the 400 immigrants working in a kosher meatpacking plant were criminally charged with using false identification. A marked departure from past instances where immigrants had faced only civil charges, the predominantly Guatemalan Spanish-speakers were penned in a cattle-barn and hurried through the mobile trailer-courthouse. Prof. Erik Camayd-Freixas of Florida International University, an interpreter who risked his professional life to speak out against the atrocities he witnessed that May, stated that most of the immigrants had no idea what a Social Security card was, let alone that they had “stolen” someone’s identity.

While much of this may seem like obscure legal arguments, what this realistically means for immigrants charged under §1028 is that, rather than the speedy deportation for which they were hoping, they may have to spend years in an American jail. Anxious to return to any jobsite to earn precious money for their families, the long sentences associated with §1028 condemn them and their families to a meager existence. Moreover, the arbitrary nature of §1028’s application means that some unlucky individuals who picked the wrong number are serving the same jail sentence as professional thieves who bilked thousands of dollars from unsuspecting internet users.

With the oral arguments in, the Supreme Court is now deliberating. Their published opinion will be released later this year, and it will certainly have far-reaching repercussions for the immigrant community. Hopefully their decision will ensure that in a post-Postville America immigrants will be guaranteed a fair civil trial.

A Vote for Un-Americans

November 4, 2008


Standing in line at the tiny Oronoco City Hall, many locals had stickers or buttons representing a veteran for whom they were voting. Coming on the heels of the Day of the Dead, perhaps this is fitting top honor those who have died fighting for a cause they believed to be just.

Today, however, I voted for the un-American among us. Since Michelle Bachman uttered her inflammatory statement last month, I have been fixated on her classification of Obama and others as “un-American.” Smacking of McCarthyism, it is a bald assertion of nativism and xenophobia. When Bachman says she would like to form a committee to examine the un-American tendencies of elected officials, this is born of a deep-rooted belief that life is dualistic, that “they are either fer or agin’ us,” that people are either full-blooded “American” or outsiders merely positioned within our arbitrary geographic borders.

I voted for all those un-Americans, like my carpool mate who listens constantly to politics on the radio and knows more about the electoral college than most citizens, but is still unable to vote because the process of naturalization takes so long. I waited an hour to vote today for all those un-American high-school students of mine down in Brownsville, Texas, who are studying hard and hoping they win the lottery of the quota system before they graduate so they can attend the college they deserve. I wore my “I voted “ sticker all day for those 23 un-Americans from India who were arrested this past week in North Dakota after walking off their jobs with Signal International who they claim is human trafficking (Preston, Julia). I got my free “voter appreciation” Starbucks coffee for those Americans who were made to feel un-American, to fear the ballot boxes 40 years ago in the South and 40 minutes ago when an immigrant made the decision to stay away from the booth because of nativism.

According to a recent AP article, Barack Obama’s Aunt Zeituni Onyango was instructed to leave the country in 2004. In response to concerns that she was living in subsidized Boston housing, Massachusetts Republican Senator Robert L. Hedlund Jr. stated that he has tried to close this “massive, absurd loophole” which enables noncitizens or “un-Americans” the right to subsidized housing. (Boston Herald). Mudslinging Republican campaigns have seized on this chance to tarnish Obama’s image just before Election Day, implying that un-Americans are criminals deserving of deportation, ostracization, and that all people related to them are guilty of wrongdoing.

Un-Americans were often barred from education in Texas prior to the landmark Peter Schey case allowing all children to attend schools regardless of citizenship status. Un-Americans were brought to our country during WWII through the Bracero Program, kept un-American as they worked, and then “repatriated” willingly or not back to Mexico. Un-Americans sit in “processing centers” right now, waiting to hear the charges brought against them, wondering when they can get out and begin to earn a wage for their hungry families once more. Nearly 4 million un-Americans became Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, thought it would be another 102 years before the 1965 Voting Rights Act would ensure literacy, citizenship, or poll-taxes would not keep them un-American on November 4.

A vote is never enough. If democracy is nothing more than a vote, then we are only a democratic nation but once a year. No, being a voice for the voiceless is democracy. Living and working for mutual benefits and universal principles are democracy. Opposing a wall between two neighbors, be it physical or spiritual, is democracy at its best. Realizing that there is no such thing as un-American, that all of us are only Americalmosts, that we are only as “American” as our actions towards others, that the word American surely was not meant to deny the rights and protections for some 12 million extralegal immigrants within our borders. Thinking back to this morning, as I filled in the bubbles representing people representing people, it is immediately evident that this morning’s action is necessary but wildly insufficient. If all men and women are inherently good, it is not so much the people we vote into office today that matter, but the people who hold these candidates to socially uplifting principles and prohibit them from morally devastating acts that count for the next four years. That is why I voted for the un-Americans.

Castle Clinton, Then and Now

October 13, 2008

Last week, I heard the best compliment about the United States. Two LLM international law students from Ghana were talking about their lasting impressions of the United States and the University of Minnesota Law School, respectively. Unlike Europe, they both said, no one in the U.S. has ever asked them when they were going to leave.

This could be written off as merely overblown American pride. But it could also be the expression of something much deeper, much more important. Perhaps Brihan and Peter have never been asked about their exit because it is assumed they are here to stay and succeed, like so many other immigrants before them. And although the melting pot is a flawed metaphor, the beauty is that everyone is accepted because everyone is assumed to be striving for the same acceptance, same success, the same happiness.

Yesterday I found myself at Castle Clinton in Battery Park of New York City. Standing inside the circular battlements first designed to ward of the British in the War of 1812, I thought of the new welcome people receive coming to our shores. Since the World Trade Center towers fell just a few blocks from here, America has doubled its Border Patrol agents, tripled its budget, and is spending millions deporting some 250,000 extralegal immigrants every year (http://visalawcanada.blogspot.com/2008/10/interesting-perspective-on-canada-us.html). Lines lengthen on our northern border and nativism heightens on our southern boundary in the form of a border wall. Gone are the orange cones between Vermont and Canada which once designated the border and represented our mutual trust.

In 2001, Tom Ridge was instrumental in passing the Smart Accords, border security measures which simultaneously attempted to curb criminal activity on the border while expediting legitimate economic activity. The idea was to “manage risk” by submitting questionable vehicles to lengthy inspection while speeding daily commuters through on their weekday drive from Detroit to Windsor. Canada even went so far as offering the United States a section of Canadian ground for pre-clearance facilities, to cut down on border wait times. The U.S. government, however, pushed for full sovereignty on Canadian soil, and so this Smart Accords measure has stalled.

Our nation’s economic recession changes nothing in the way of its pull for immigrants. While Americans may feel that the “economic crisis” is being borne hardest by us, this is simply not the truth. Any look at international exchange rates or foreign papers will show the fear and downward plunge of foreign markets. No, this change in economy will not solve our immigration problems any more than a wall will. As Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has stated, our country has posted both “Help Wanted” and “No Trespassing” signs – only one of which it is possible for us to change immediately (Heyer, Kristin http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=11117). With hate crimes against Hispanics on the rise 25% since 2004, it is clear that the xenophobia behind the protectionist anti-immigrant sentiments is alive and well. May we learn to welcome the stranger among us.

It is clear that our current frenzy of border security measures has only rerouted undocumented immigration into more dangerous, tougher-to-enforce areas. While apprehensions in San Diego dropped by two-thirds from 1994-2000, the deaths have skied to more than 1,000 since the turn of the century(in contrast, 300 people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall throughout its entire 28 years of operation). http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12332971)

As I turn around, taking in Castle Clinton and the unique view of Ellis Island from its stone archway, I think of the 8 million immigrants who came here before it closed its doors in 1890. My ancestors received basic healthcare exams and a brief orientation within these walls before they were set loose on the Pennsylvania coal mines.

New York is a microcosm of American immigration. Walking its streets once again, I am struck by how seamlessly ambassadors from a veritable league of nations pass each other on the busy avenues. In a quiet Midtown café this morning, the barista saw pesos in my hand as I scrambled to make change. “Could I have that to add to my collection?” And in a simple transaction at a café counter between a Minnesota law student and a Kansas-New Yorker, I am reminded how welcoming and curious we Americans truly are. Hopefully our immigrant policies will reflect that in the next presidency.

Something there is that Doesn’t Love a Wall, Part 1

April 14, 2008

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….

It currently extends some 4,500 miles. Though never a continuous wall, it was guarded at times by as many as a million men. These fortifications of earth and brick were built and rebuilt from the 5th century B.C. until the 16th century A.D. Some of the most famous sections of wall were built by the Qin and Ming Dynasties. The Great Wall of China, while a popular tourist attraction now, claimed the lives of 2-3 million people during its centuries-long construction.

The current plans for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, while only 700 miles for a border half the length of the Great Wall of China, do follow in the tradition of walls of all shapes and sizes. The border wall proposed for America’s southern border, locally referred to as la frontera, will not be a continuous wall. Instead, it will highlight “high-traffic zones” like wildlife sanctuaries, schools, churches, and depressed downtowns, and conspicuously passover places like River Bend Resort and Hunt family’s Sharyland Estates. With all the grace and diplomacy of a Chinese Emperor, Homeland Security has waived 39 laws for the wall in Texas and 19 different laws for the Arizona portion. And, just like the Great Wall of China, people will surely die as a result of this costly edifice. Close to 400 people die annually with our current militarized borders, a sad statistic which has doubled in the last decade. As Professor Wayne Cornelius of University of California – San Diego, stated, To put this death toll in perspective, the fortified US border with Mexico has been more than 10 times deadlier to migrants from Mexico during the past nine years than the Berlin Wall was to East Germans throughout its 28-year existence. If a border wall is erected through la frontera, that number could easily double or triple.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors?

In China, the intent of the Great Wall was to keep the marauding Mongolian and Manchurian tribes out of their land. This isolationism mentality lasted for millenia, only beginning to change in the last portion of the 20th century. The wall successfully repulsed successive Manchurian invasions for almost 40 years until finally a Ming general named Wu Sangui who disagreed with his commanders simply let them in through a gate.

Walls have never proven effective for long periods of time. The border wall intended for 1/5 of the southern U.S. has already created some opportunistic evasions of the Secure Fence Act. An unjust law breeds injustice and creates criminals, and this 2005 legislation has done that. Far from discouraging border-crossers, it merely drives the prices and lethality of such dangerous ventures. Coyotes have been making news in the Rio Grande Valley after several car-crashes which have sadly left immigrants dead or wounded and without rights; the coyotes, however, have lived to try another day. And since almost ½ of extralegal residents in the U.S. have come here legally, immigration reform seems to be a more practical way of beginning to assimilate these individuals who have come by air or by sea over or around the trajectory of the proposed border wall.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

(Robert Frost, “Mending Walls“)

While not visible from the moon and only able to be seen by a trained eye at low orbit, the Great Wall of China is certainly an imposing feature. While architects may debate its construction and the merits of its foundations, people from all walks of life can readily agree that it was not a success and actually sapped China of resources, labor, and interchange of ideas. Materially, it is a lasting structure; economically, politically, socially, and morally, it was a failure from the moment it was made.

The very idea of a wall went against the progressive thinking of the Chinese people. A border wall would seriously call into question the democracy and moral high ground our nation has claimed and attempted to impart to dozens of other nations. When Chinese students protested in 1989 at the Tiananman Square, they did not build a replica of their nation’s giant man-made monument. Instead, they fashioned a model of America’s symbol of freedom and hope, of opportunity for all peoples, immigrant and resident. May we not betray the legacy of Lady Liberty for the infamy of a divisive border wall.

Insider, Outsider – Is that the question?

March 31, 2008
No Border Wall Walk- Day 8

During the No Border Wall Walk this part March 8-16, thousands of people honked encouragement as we walked 126 miles from Roma to Brownsville. Thousands of people smiled, dozens of people generously donated food and drinks for us, and scores of churches supported our efforts.

However, when a Brownsville Herald journalist interviewed me at the final Sunday rally, one of her remarks was that some people had been complaining that “Webster” is not a Mexican surname and that this was an event organized by “outsiders.” At first, I didn’t understand these individuals’ comments. As a high-school teacher on the border for two years, I feel invested and accepted by this border community in such a way that I do not feel as if I were a Pennsylvania Yankee or a New York native.

As I regained my composure, many thoughts congealed simultaneously. I probably answered her question too many ways for her to use it in any of the articles in the Brownsville Herald. One of my remarks was that this was not organized by outsiders. It was maintained and staffed and sustained by faith groups all throughout the Valley. Additionally, any one of us who was born in another state was passionate enough about these border issues to move to la frontera, and so even if our birthplace was different our hearts were similar. I also mentioned that this was not the cause of an outsider – I pray to God I would be as passionate about these same moral issues if I were still residing in farmtown Troy, Pennsylvania.

I continued to respond to these desparaging comments by stating that our inspiration for this march, the Selma to Montgomery March 43 years ago, was supervised by a great man who was also criticized as being an outsider. Martin Luther King responded to his countless critics by writing that,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” (Why We Can’t Wait, 77)

Dr. King realized that no one can ever truly be criticized for being an outsider if they are working to right injustice. If any injustice weakens the entire bedrock of Justice in the United States, it is everyone’s responsibility, “outsider” or indigenous, to strive for a more just system.

Lastly, as the reporter moved on to the next question, I circled back to the idea behind the border wall walk. I teach 130 high-school students every day, and while I do impart the fundamentals of vocabulary, grammar, and literary analysis, it is my utmost desire that they will be more ready for life when they leave my door for the last time, not just for 10th grade. These lives in my charge will be directly affected by a border wall, and so I cannot just simply ignore the Secure Fence Act of 2006. It is precisely because some individuals in this country have deemed certain people “illegal” and criminal, undocumented and therefore undesirable, that such a xenophobic act as a wall is even being discussed. The idea of any or all of the 300+ participants in this nonviolent demonstration being “outsiders” is precisely the idea the No Border Wall Walk targeted. If we were able to educate just a few individuals that the border wall is not going through barren wasteland but backyards, not desert but downtowns, not lonely no-man’s-land but through men and women’s lives, then our walk was a success. I pray we succeeded in bringing people back to a point where they could civilly discuss the issues of immigration and see the issue in terms of people instead of insiders and outsiders, those with rights and those without.

The question of “insider” or “outsider” should only be asked by navel-gazers staring at their bellybuttons. As the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11 NIV) We must cultivate a national mentality that views people as assets, one which seeks to recognize that divine spark, that image of God endowed in each and every one of us. I wish my response to the readers and commentators of the Brownsville Herald had been, “Well, here there is no Mexican or American, Texan or Tamaulipan, illegal or extralegal, Spanglish Spanish or English, insider or outsider, but Christ is all and is in all.”