Ten Years After Postville Raid, Immigration Enforcement Returns to Totalitarian Tactics

May 12, 2018, marked the 10th anniversary of the Postville, Iowa, immigration raid. More than 300 slaughterhouse workers were arrested on anti-terrorist charges of “aggravated identity theft.” Most were Mayans from Guatemala who could not read and did not even know what a Social Security Number was. At the plant, human resources helped workers with their papers and the $550 fee, often payroll-deductible.

As an interpreter in the prosecutions, I learned that the workers had been coerced by the feds into waiving their constitutional right to Grand Jury indictment, under threat of more jail time. Then they were denied their constitutional right to reasonable bail because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had issued an immigration detainer against them, thus forcing the magistrates to comply. I interpreted for them their 15-page plea agreement, which coerced them into pleading guilty to Social Security fraud with six months in prison, instead of two to 10 years for aggravated identity theft.

They had no choice. They were begging to be deported. But no, first the US had to put them in chains.

What was at stake for them was the survival of their children, spouses and parents who depended on their measly remittances. “A day I don’t work is a day my children don’t eat,” one man told me. I later learned that one of his five children, a 13-year-old boy, had hanged himself back in Guatemala out of desperation while his father was in prison.

Finally, I witnessed how that plea agreement bound the judges’ hands so they had no discretion at sentencing. The Bush-Cheney executive branch agencies, ICE, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) forced the hand of the judiciary. It was the breakdown of the separation of powers, a pillar of our democracy. It was also the only mass felony prosecution in the history of modern democracy: Almost 400 souls processed, convicted and sentenced, 10 at a time, in just seven working days.

They were denied the universal right of defense. I denounced the abuse of process in an essay published by The New York Times that helped secure a unanimous 9-0 US Supreme Court ruling (Flores-Figueroa v. United States) to disallow identity theft charges against unknowing migrants. It was an important victory that removed the threat of frivolous prosecution from some 7 million undocumented workers in the United States.

Still, the social fabric of the town and the neighboring economy were devastated. Another 400 workers from the late shift missed the raid and fled town with their families. Unable to replace its workforce, the meatpacker went bankrupt within months. The plant’s controller told me in an interview that this represented a loss of $250 million a year for suppliers in a 400-mile radius and distributors from New York to Florida. He calculated that 5,000 jobs in the US were lost that depended on the 700 immigrant jobs destroyed by the raid. It was a huge lesson: Immigrant jobs create higher-level jobs and opportunities for US citizens. The bankrupted meatpacker, Agriprocessors, was later bought for pennies on the dollar by a foreign investor. It was a pattern repeated many times: US companies bankrupted by the raids and sold off for scraps to foreign interests, which now control most of our meat industry. The saddest was the demise of the 150-year-old Swift & Co., sold off to a foreign consortium. Thousands of higher-level and management jobs were lost for Americans.

Worst of all, the Postville raid and fast-track prosecutions were a terrifying pilot operation to be replicated and scaled across the US, under ICE’s charter document, dubbed Operation Endgame (2003) — a draconian plan to round up and deport 11 million migrants. Accordingly, the Postville raid involved the coordination of numerous federal agencies, FBI, ICE, DOJ, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US District Court, US Marshalls, plus 1,100 agents with flak vests and assault weapons, 700 arrest warrants, two Blackhawk helicopters, 10 DHS prisoner-transfer buses, 23 FEMA trailers, nine judges, 34 prosecutors, 23 court-appointed defenders, and 26 interpreters. It was a multimillion-dollar operation.

DHS assembled them all at a paramilitary command and detention center they had set up at a 60-acre cattle fairground, which they had rented under false pretenses for “training exercises.” There, in a large warehouse, they had several chain-link cages stuffed with arrested workers, treated like enemy combatants, awaiting fast-track prosecution in chain gangs of 10. It was indeed a “Continuity of Operations Exercise” (COE), except that the cases were real, with migrant workers being used for practice. There was even a makeshift “field” federal court and three sentencing trailers; in short, all the trappings of martial law.

The idea for COEs began with Rex84 (Readiness Exercise 1984) during the Reagan-Bush Cold War administration, to ensure continuity of government during a catastrophic event. It was led by Vice President Bush, Oliver North and particularly, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who had been promoting each other since Nixon, and who resurrected the idea after 9/11, with the creation in March 2003 of Homeland Security, a directorate of 22 federal agencies, consolidating executive power and creating a paramilitary police force to circumvent the Posse Comitatus Act. All they needed was to inflate anti-immigrant propaganda to secure ballooning funding from Congress. The old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was split: Its civil side was separated as US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and its policing side, now autonomous and unchecked, became ICE and CBP, which now have grown to become one of the largest police forces in the world, with more than 40,000 agents.

There is, of course, one capacity-building element missing, which was part of the 1984 security plans: The rapid expansion of prisons. After the US-sponsored Contra Wars in Central America, the Rex84 team created the fabled scenario of a massive migration wave from Central America and Mexico, particularly if the US invaded. The expanded prison facilities could also be used for domestic civil unrest, antiwar protesters, race riots and other civilian threats to the state. Plans were made to create detention centers, but they could not be funded. So, Reagan authorized prison privatization in 1984. Since then, the US prison population has more than tripled and is the largest, with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Imprisoning immigrants, in particular, is now a fast-growing and highly lucrative, if morally bankrupt and corrupt business, driven by federal (taxpayer) funds.

The last immigration reform act, Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, provided for mandatory and indefinite detention, without charges, but it was not enforced like it is now under Homeland Security, because we did not have the integrated databases and the surveillance capabilities we have now. But ICE has co-opted the Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as state and local police, tapping into their databases, pursuing drivers of color, conducting warrantless home invasions and arrests, or ambushing migrants as they go to work, leave church, or pick up their kids from school. In Postville, virtually all the 700 arrest warrants bore Latino names. Local teachers even reported agents searching through school records, days before the raid.

Democracy and the Constitution are the first casualties in this all-out war against undocumented immigration. In this brave new world of the 21st century, immigration enforcement has become the systematic persecution of a profiled population, the stuff of totalitarian regimes. George Orwell was mistaken: 1984 is now.