A huge raid in Iowa has rounded up almost 400 workers, and 270 of them have been sentenced to 5 months in prison for working with fake papers. Most of them are Guatemalan, almost none of them have (or should I say had) criminal records, and all of them pretty much would just like to be deported at this point to get back to the families they were trying to support.

From the NYT:

The prosecutions, which ended Friday, 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 in a May 12 raid. Until now, unauthorized workers have generally been detained by immigration officials for civil violations and rapidly deported.

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.

This is why this is important, in a nutshell:

“To my knowledge, the magnitude of these indictments is completely unprecedented,” said Juliet Stumpf, an immigration law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., who was formerly a senior civil rights lawyer at the Justice Department. “It’s the reliance on criminal process here as part of an immigration enforcement action that takes this out of the ordinary, a startling intensification of the criminalization of immigration law.” [emphasis mine]

One U.S. attorney called is an “astonishing success.” But there are concerns about whether or not due process was respected. Whatcha bet this was hurried through, just to make sure it was an “astonishing success”?

The unusually swift proceedings, in which 297 immigrants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in four days, were criticized by criminal defense lawyers, who warned of violations of due process. Twenty-seven immigrants received probation. The American Immigration Lawyers Association protested that the workers had been denied meetings with immigration lawyers and that their claims under immigration law had been swept aside in unusual and speedy plea agreements.

It’s so destructive to start criminalizing immigration. Let me count the ways:

1) The identification of immigrant with criminal inflames tensions which may already exist in a community. Immigrants are quite often blamed for crime, one of the factors cited in the current mob violence in South Africa (even though, in the U.S. at least, they commit proportionally less crime). And calling someone a criminal for, essentially, letting someone exploit them so they can work incredibly hard to feed their families sends a message to the public at large that immigrants (and illegal immigrant will, of course, be conflated with any immigrant in public discourse) are dangerous, and undesireable, even when they may be propping up large sections of a community’s economy.

2) Also, this disproportionately punishes the families that these immigrants are supporting. If they’re deported, at least they can continue to be a help to their families in the countries of origin, in jail, they are a help to no one, and somewhere, someone’s wife, or brother, or daughter, or grandmother will go hungry. The U.S. taxpayer will spend money locking someone up so that someone in Guatemala can be made that much poorer than they already were. What a fantastic use of our nation’s resources.

3) But of course, for someone this is a fantastic use of resources, those who get rich while our incarceration rate soars to the highest in the world. This just bloats our already sickeningly overgrown prison industrial complex. While some states are considering letting non-violent offenders out because of a lack of room and funding for an overcrowded system, this would further exacerbate the problem.

4) Lastly, this feeds right into the hands of the exploiters, for whom a scared workforce is a docile and more easily exploitable workforce. Burdened not just with the fear of deportation but with that of incarceration as well, they will be all the more reluctant to demands their rights, to resist unfair and even criminal labor practices.

Which brings me to my next complaint: though the state may put together a case against the employers, so far “No charges have been brought against managers or owners at Agriprocessors [Inc.],” a company with a dubious record to begin with. The country’s largest producer of Kosher meat products is a bit sketchy:

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.

I suppose the loss of almost 400 workers in one fell swoop is a bit of a punishment, but it makes no sense to insist that we “maintain the integrity of the immigration system” and ignore those who exploit and benefit from immigrant labor – they are an integral part of the equation.