Saturday, May 24, 2008

Criminal prosecutions in largest-ever raid signal feds' tougher attitude toward illegal immigration

Prosecutions stemming from the nation's largest-ever criminal immigration raid "signal a sharp escalation in the Bush administration’s crackdown on illegal workers, with prosecutors bringing tough federal criminal charges against most of the immigrants arrested," writes Julia Preston of The New York Times. "Until now, unauthorized workers have generally been detained by immigration officials for civil violations and rapidly deported."

Raiders of the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville, Iowa, detained 389 workers, mostly from Guatemala. Yesterday, the prosecutions of 297 who pleaded guilty ended, with 270 being sentenced to five months in prison for working with false documents and 27 getting probation. "The large number of criminal cases was remarkable because immigration violations generally fall under civil statutes. Until now, relatively few immigrants caught in raids have been charged with federal crimes like identity theft or document fraud," Preston reports. "No charges have been brought against managers or owners at Agriprocessors, but there were indications that prosecutors were also preparing a case against the company. In pleading guilty, immigrants had to agree to cooperate with any investigation."

The plant, the largest U.S. producer of kosher meat, has long been controversial. "Since 2004, the plant has faced repeated sanctions for environmental and worker safety violations. It was the focus of a 2006 exposé in The Jewish Daily Forward and a commission of inquiry that year by Conservative Jewish leaders," Preston reports. "In Postville, workers from the plant, still feeling aftershocks from the raid, said conditions there were often harsh. In interviews, they said they were often required to work overtime and night shifts, sometimes up to 14 hours a day, but were not consistently paid for the overtime." (Read more)

The raid has prompted much action and discussion in Postville's religious community, reports Karen Heinselman of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. "Last week, Christian radio station manager Doug Smith of 101.9 KNWS challenged listeners to examine immigration in the context of faith, removed from politics," she writes. Smith asked, "Can we help our nation craft policies that respect our laws and our right of border protection while at the same time treating people with respect and compassion?" (Read more) The station is one of 15 owned by Northwestern College of St. Paul, Minn., a liberal-arts school with a Baptist heritage.

UPDATE, June 2: "Federal law enforcement agencies have increased criminal prosecutions of immigration violators to record levels, in part by filing minor charges against virtually every person caught illegally crossing some stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border, according to new U.S. data," Spencer Hsu reports for The Washington Post. (Read more)

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