As we watch ICE raids all over the country in horror, I am reminded that this ugly drama appeared as a “continuance of operation exercise” ten years ago, in 2007 under the Bush administration. It was a raid on a meatpacking plant in tiny Postville, Iowa, population 2000.
As I wrote in my memoir In The Gamethe Highs and Lows of a Trailblazing Trial Lawyer, “Chapter 21, Keeping the Faith,” after the U.S. government enlisted federal judges and court reporters from around the country for a “top security” matter, hundreds of armed ICE agents in black vans and helicopters swarmed the tiny town and arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced the plant workers in a matter of days using make shift tents like a traveling circus. These poor and unfortunate Guatemalan immigrants, after being coerced into guilty pleas to manufactured charges of identity theft, were separated from their families and swiftly sent to prisons around the country to serve year long sentences, to be followed by deportation. Bizarrely, the immigrants were not allowed to elect deportation in lieu of federal criminal sentences.
Today we are informed that private prisons are preparing for a huge influx of detainees from the immigration raids. Clearly there is more than meets the eye in these recent enforcement actions and I suspect it has to do with creating “shareholder value” for the private prison industry, and perhaps in the future creating a captive and unpaid labor force.
I have included the chapter from my book below:
KEEPING THE FAITH
On a warm summer evening in 2007, during one of my long-distance cocktail hours with my younger sister, Sheila—featuring Waterford tumblers of Jameson’s on both ends—I expressed how depressed I felt having had to give up my law practice. I felt powerless to contribute anything meaningful to the world. Because of my compromised immune system, I was afraid of
getting deathly sick again, so I’d just declined an invitation to go
with a group from my church in Santa Monica to an orphanage
in Mexico to deliver clothes, toys, and other necessities.
Sheila decided to step in. She challenged me to fly back to
the Midwest the coming weekend for a few days at her place on
the Mississippi River. “You should be here,” she said, crisply, as
she always did, emphasizing certain syllables to generate guilt,
and others to remind me that I was the family runaway. She proposed
we join a civil rights march in support of jailed Guatemalan
immigrants and their families that was being organized by
the Franciscan nuns at St. Rose Convent in La Crosse, Wisconsin
She would take care of everything, she explained. I would
simply have to follow her instructions. She would pick me up at
the airport and I would spend the next few days at her mercy.
A violent raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) on a kosher meatpacking plant had decimated tiny Postville,
Iowa (population 2,000) a few months earlier. Over onethird
of the population had been arrested. Showcasing hundreds
of heavily armed federal agents (two for every arrestee),
swarms of black helicopters, and convoys of black SUVs and
prison buses, this arm of Homeland Security had swooped in
and demonstrated its might by rounding up immigrant slaughterhouse
workers. The immigrants, most of whom were no taller
than five feet, were illiterate, spoke no English, and had been
brought to Iowa by the New York owners of the plant.
After their arrest, the immigrants were chained—hand,
foot, and waist, as well as to each other—and hauled like animals
to the National Cattle Congress Fairgrounds in Waterloo, Iowa.
Once there, armed federal agents herded these illiterate
Guatemalan peasants down cattle chutes and into trailers set
up as “continuance of operations” courts for stage-managed
and expedited arraignment, where they coerced guilty pleas to
manufactured felony crimes, then subjected the men to summary
conviction and sentencing to federal prisons around the
country. After serving prison time, the immigrants would be
deported, something they would have agreed to at the time of
their arrests, and which would have saved taxpayers the more
than $5,000,000 it cost to incarcerate them all. I tried to imagine
the terror these indigenous Mayan people must have felt.
These entire proceedings were completed in less than two
weeks before federal judges handpicked by the Bush administration.
Translators, flown in from around the country, learned
it was a top priority national security exercise. Cameras and
recording devices were not allowed. Erik Camayd-Freixas, PhD,
a professor of Spanish at Florida International University and
one of the translators summoned to this “exercise,” was so horrified
by what he saw that he broke the code of silence observed
by court interpreters in a lengthy essay, “Interpreting After the
Largest ICE Raid in US History: A Personal Account,” which he
circulated among the other two dozen interpreters at his university.
The essay became a sensation and was covered by The
New York Times and numerous other publications, and was later
invoked in demands for comprehensive immigration reform.
In May 2009, too late to help the Postville workers who had
served prison terms and been deported, the US Supreme Court
declared it illegal for US Attorneys to use felony charges of identity
theft to leverage a guilty plea in immigration cases.
In 2007, our caravan from St. Rose Convent snaked across
the Mississippi River over a rickety old metal suspension bridge
at Lansing, Iowa, a small fishing hamlet upriver from Prairie du
Chien. During the fifties this had been a Huck Finn–like kid’s
world where we fished, made rafts, and routinely found buried
Native American arrowheads. My brothers shot each other with
BB guns in hidden villages they built up, and threatened to toss
us off the top of a huge boulder if we ever told on them.
As a girl “river rat” I fancied myself alternately Lewis and
Clark’s Sacajawea or Tom Sawyer’s Becky, realizing even at that
young age that I had to make the gender thing work for me.
We made the most of our lack of parental supervision in ways
that scare me, looking back—literally risking life and limb as we
played along the river. I remember dancing across the wooden
railroad bridge, bouncing from tie to tie almost thirty feet above
the river, oblivious to the danger of either the river or the trains.
One of my brothers ultimately burned that bridge down (something
I learned only in adulthood).
During our trip over the bridge all these years later, I conjured
up my five-year-old self, sitting in the deep velvety backseat
of our old green 1952 Packard, my dad at the wheel. Overcome
by deep nostalgia, I held my breath, as my many siblings
and I always did on those suspension bridges until the bumpata-
bumpata-bumpata-bump-bump of rubber tires over section
after section of webbed steel bridge turned once again to smooth
pavement. On his mission across the Wisconsin state line to
Iowa to buy colored oleomargarine (illegal then in “America’s
Dairyland”), my dad thought it hilarious to slow to a near stop
in the middle of the bridge as the mob of us in the backseat
Nearly 2,000 people showed up for the march through
Postville. Four diminutive Guatemalan girls, surrounded by
a sea of white-haired nuns, carried signs and chanted, “Sí, se
puede,” as they bounced down the street, smiling broadly, like
the guests of honor at a street party. The marchers included
older nuns in plain street clothes, alongside a few hip younger
ones sporting asymmetrical haircuts, dark leather sandals, peasant
skirts, and over-the-shoulder cloth totes, looking more like
art school students than nuns.
Before the march, as we started the day with Mass in the
golden magnificence of St. Rose Convent’s Maria Angelorum
chapel, followed by breakfast in the convent dining room, I
couldn’t help wondering how different my life would be had I
followed my urge to enter the convent after high school. I am
sure that as a “bride of Christ” I would’ve been just as restless
as I had been in my conventional marriages. But the FSPA nuns
were the first real feminists I’d known as a young Catholic girl,
and their communal life of spirituality and intellectual pursuits
had appealed to me. As had their knowing smiles behind the
backs of priestly pomposity.
Now here I was with the same cheeky nuns I’d wanted to
join way back in high school, including Sister Lucille, one of
their most prominent leaders, and one of the great influences
of my life. She’d shooed me away to college, no doubt knowing
that the convent was probably not the right place for me.
When I reminded Sister Lucille of her words from long ago, she
responded with a familiar and knowing smile and said, “And I
was right, wasn’t I?”
Things were heating up when we all met at St. Bridget’s
Catholic Church that morning. The main street of the tiny town
was lined with passionate immigration opponents, foreigners
themselves to these parts, shouting and carrying signs, including
one quoting Tom Tancredo, the anti-immigration Arizona
congressman. My personal favorite was a woman dressed up as
the Statue of Liberty, face and hair painted green under a green
crown, body covered by a green-painted sheet—all of which
later melted in the rain. St. Bridget’s had become a sanctuary
under the watchful eye of the physically diminutive Sister Mary
McCauley, who through national news coverage had become the
unlikely face and voice of this particular struggle. McCauley was
the very picture of calm in the middle of the storm, tough and
impervious to the vicious taunts and threats of the anti-immigration
zealots. She instructed us not to respond to the hecklers
along the route, and we didn’t. I guess she actually practiced that
“turn the other cheek” stuff espoused by the original Christian
some two thousand years ago.
McCauley’s terrified flock was sheltered in St. Bridget’s,
many of the tiny women wearing heavy government-issue electronic
ankle bracelets as they carried babies on their hips, all of
them dressed up in their Sunday best red, white, and blue. They
were models of patriotism for the country that had just torn
their families apart. The women had been released to care for
their children on the condition they wear these medieval-looking
devices, which monitored them twenty-four hours each day.
The women and the little kids smiled at us and clearly understood
we were there to help them, but I wondered how they
could trust anyone ever again.
The blatant display of federal excess met its match in
McCauley when she took it upon herself to assert the authority
of the Catholic Church and declare the church as well as the
school bus as sanctuaries. She had reportedly summoned the
parish priest by phone that day, insisting, “Father, we need a collar
over here right now.”
While the nuns had always been responsible for the
schools, it seemed to me that there was something new afoot
when a nun didn’t hesitate to issue a command to a priest—and
he followed it. Yet at the same time, Sister McCauley’s words,
“We need a collar over here right now,” was an acknowledgment
of the Church’s male-dominated hierarchy. McCauley, and the
priest she summoned, knew a priest would hold greater sway
over federal agents than she, a nun, could.
McCauley’s courage and candor in those terrifying circumstances
was refreshing, and made me love these nuns all the
more. To me, and many of us, the nuns are the embodiment of
the one true Church.
On the edge of town a sign proclaimed Postville’s pride in
being the home of John R. Mott, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
in 1946 for promoting peace and Christian brotherhood across
national boundaries, through organizations such as the YMCA.
How ironic, I thought, as I imagined his disgust at the recent
events. The Archbishop of Iowa spoke to the crowd packed into
the church, first in Spanish, then in English, demonstrating a
humility and humanity that shocked me into remembering the
Church I once loved.
That day, Church and State synergized for me in a profound
way that made my unorthodox life make sense. Midwestern law
school professors spoke, joined in the demonstration, and participated
in a beautiful non-denominational service, which also
featured the children and spouses of the newly imprisoned. The
parish then graciously served the rain-soaked marchers platters
of homemade sandwiches, cookies, cakes, and brownies.
I was struck at how the grassroots of the Midwest seemed to
have grown up. When I lived there in the fifties and sixties, outsiders
of any kind were viewed with suspicion. Even the tourists,
who filled the towns and villages for fall leaf tours or summer
river fun and provided much-needed revenue, were resented.
Today, “outsiders” with brown skin who spoke foreign languages
were woven into the fabric of this community. I was awestruck.
During my visit, Sheila and I spent time on her deck watching
barges and paddle-wheel riverboats passing, their calliope
music hanging in the humid air. We marveled at the community
of eagles, thriving after years on the endangered species list,
diving for fish across the way. We paddled around sloughs and
islands in a kayak, occasionally wielding our paddles to drench
each other, and deftly dodged the barge traffic powering its way
down the river.
Now it all made sense. My view of the world and the way I
practiced law in Los Angeles all these years had deep roots in the
small-town life along the river of my childhood. It was here that
I had formed my opinions about justice, and here that I had realized
it was not equal, or for all. It was here that I’d decided I had
to take risks and do something about that. The powerful, dangerous,
and ever-changing Mississippi River had become a part
of me, so much so that I would always make my home alongside
iconic and powerful bodies of water. In Chicago it was Lake
Michigan, and in Southern California it was the Pacific Ocean.For as long as I could remember, I had been drawn to the
excitement of the city and yearned for the day I could leave the
small town behind and get into the heart of the action. Yet as
a girl growing up there, I’d identified with the underdog and
viewed life as a David-and-Goliath struggle. And I’d always
wanted to be on the side of the biblical underdog, David.