Interpreting the pain of Postville immigration raid


When a group of federally certified interpreters were asked to travel to Waterloo, Iowa from different parts of the country to conduct an unknown mission for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they had no idea that they would be engaged in one of the most pivotal moments in modern-day immigration battles.

Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas was born in Cuba, received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, and is currently Associate Professor of Latin American literature at Florida International University. As one of the 26 interpreters, he arrived in Waterloo on the evening of May 13th, 2008, when he learned that ICE, in its biggest immigration raid yet, had detained 400 undocumented workers from a kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa.

Updates from Postville:
courtesy of Jewish Community Action
• The State of Iowa gave a $700,000 grant to the City of Postville to help with former workers’ rent and utility bills.
• Twin Cities Conservative Jewish congregations led a food drive for Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Postville. Nechema donated use of their van for the effort.
• Women with GPS ankle monitors report burns due to the months of wearing and recharging the devices. The women are required to remain in Postville while they await their court dates — some women have court dates set for January, some for May (a year after the raid), and some still have not been given a date. While the women remain in Iowa awaiting their court dates, they are prohibited from working and therefore cannot provide for their children.
• Each Wednesday afternoon approximately 150 people (many representing larger households) visit the food pantry. Some of the people have consistently visited the food pantry since the raid, and some are new hires at Agriprocessors who are not able to get by on the wages paid by Agriprocessors.
• The Iowa Labor Commissioner fined Agriprocessors nearly $10 million for alleged wage violations. Also, federal charges of harboring illegal immigrants were filed against ex-CEO Shalom Rubashkin.
• Jacobson Staffing, which had been handling all new hires for Agriprocessors, has closed and left town.
• Agriprocessors applied for bankruptcy protection in an effort to hold off creditors and reorganize the operations at the plant. Beef production has stopped at Agriprocessors, and poultry production is down. Agriprocessors shut down their entire operation at a second plant in Gordon, NE.
• Up to 35 people who were arrested on May 12th have been released over the last few weeks and are showing up in town with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many have said they were released so that they could testify against Agriprocessors in the coming weeks and months ahead. Many have said they were promised a one-year work visa for their efforts; no visa’s have materialized as of today.
• In New York, Agriprocessors is challenging U.S. labor law with an attempt to take away the right of undocumented workers to vote for union representation, safer working conditions, better treatment and better pay/benefits.

On a recent visit to Minneapolis, Camayd-Freixas met with the Daily Planet to talk about his involvement in the Iowa raid, and the influence he hopes that his work, and that of other activists would have on immigration legislation.

In an essay that has now become famous, as the eye-opener to the inhumane conditions that the detained immigrants faced, Camayd-Freixas expressed his shock at a disaster that he says was “entirely man-made.” This excerpt from his essay, explains what he saw:

[…]Then began the saddest procession I have ever witnessed, which the public would never see, because cameras were not allowed past the perimeter of the compound (only a few journalists came to court the following days, notepad in hand). Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10.

This essay, he says, prompted emails and letters from different interest groups across the nation.

“I soon became the clearing house of information,” he said. Since the detainees were secluded, Camayd-Freixas and other interpreters were the only ones with first-hand information on the status of the immigrants.

The emails were not just inquiries, but were also a host of resources for him. “Different groups advised me on different immigrant and human rights’ laws, and social policies on immigrant families,” Camayd-Freixas explained. Charity, social welfare, and religious groups also contacted him since they were interested in assisting the families of the detainees.

One of the groups that contacted him was the Labor Council for Latino American Advancement, which immediately following the raid called for a moratorium on raids. Their immediate argument, and that of many other advocates of human rights, was that ICE could not continue raids with a broken system in place.

The immigration debate has been rife with controversy, with different interest groups calling for varying forms of amnesty, and others for immediate deportation. Camayd-Freixas saw this environment as ripe for beginning a path towards legislation that would benefit Americans as well as undocumented immigrants and their families.

“We need to preserve the human rights of every individual… to meet the needs on both sides of the border,” he said. Against this backdrop, he founded the Research Institute on Immigration Reform, a think tank made up of experts from a cross-section of academic disciplines: law, social sciences, and immigration, who would use their expertise to advice policymakers.

Camayd-Freixas argues that, contrary to the beliefs of anti-immigration individuals and groups, there are viable ways of accomplishing comprehensive immigration reform.

“It is important to identify that there is an economic need on both sides of the border,” he said. “Ignoring this will affect national security.” He continues to say that he is not in favor of individuals illegally crossing the border, however, not regulating the system has made these very individuals victims of corrupt systems. Many of them are economic refugees. They only want to make their lives and those of their families better “to prevent the starvation of their children.” He says that, once they get to the U.S., unscrupulous individuals sell them fake identification at exorbitant prices.

“Criminalizing undocumented workers takes the sheep, and dresses them in wolves clothing,” Camayd-Freixas observed. Many of them, including the ones detained from Iowa, he says, are illiterate and have little or no knowledge of the laws of the US.

“Deporting them is perpetuating a cycle of poverty and illegal immigration,” Camayd-Freixas said. He views immigration reform from a human rights perspective, and believes there is a need to address the root cause of immigration.

In a somber voice, he says that the damage on the immigrants from Postville has been done. “When you send somebody to jail, you can never give back that time.”

The raid left the wives and children of the detainees desolate. (Read about my trip to Postville here.) Many of them could not go back to work, and sought refuge in the church. Camayd-Freixas says, “these hardworking mothers were reduced to begging.” He blames the government. ICE, he says, released the women on “humanitarian grounds” following an uproar from humanitarian groups who were worried that children would be left alone without their parents. “ICE washed its hands of the plight of these women,” Camayd-Freixas continues, “the worse government takes no responsibility. Our government has violated the rights of these individuals.”

Nekessa Opoti is the publisher of, a Kenyan online magazine and newspaper and also writes for Mshale, a Minnesota-based African community newspaper.