"The one place a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow," said Atticus Finch, the widower lawyer and father to his young son Jem in Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Fairness in court is a hallmark of American democracy. So engrained in American values is the concept of "liberty and justice for all" that our ancestors fought a Revolutionary War to uphold it. And shortly after our independence from Great Britain, the founding fathers saw fit to add a Bill of Rights to our new Constitution.
Among our most absolute rights are those protecting us if we are accused of committing a crime. By ensuring such rights, we know that convictions are warranted. In America, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
These bedrock principles of American justice recently suffered a shattering blow at the altar of immigration enforcement. On May 12, during the largest single-site immigration raid of an employer in U.S. history, nearly 400 workers were arrested at a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.
Following the raid, the arrested workers were detained in barns at the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa. In a news release issued that same day, announcing a temporary relocation of judges and other personnel to Waterloo, the federal district court referred to the "arrest and prosecution of numerous illegal aliens," prejudging facts about immigration status before any criminal charges were filed. At the cattle yards, detainees were shackled, wore prison garb and had no opportunity to seek bond. Yet the vast majority of them reportedly had no criminal history.
The employer, Agriprocessors Inc., has not been criminally charged, but has been sanctioned repeatedly for violating environmental and labor laws. Allegations against the plant include employing immigrant children in dangerous and exploitive conditions.
Remarkably, by May 23, less than two weeks following the arrests, 270 people had pleaded guilty to felonies, were sentenced to prison and gave up their right to have a judge determine if they had any legal way to remain in the United States.
They will be immediately deported upon completion of their sentences. Another 27 individuals received probation instead of prison sentences, and agreed to immediate deportation.
Prosecutors offered an exceptionally harsh plea-bargain to the Waterloo detainees: Within the next seven days, plead guilty, receive prison time (or, in a few cases, probation) and agree to deportation, or face even tougher charges and sentences later.
During the following hectic days, federal judges set up courtrooms in the livestock arena. As many as 30 detainees were assigned to each court-appointed defense lawyer. The compressed timeframe and large number of cases assigned to each lawyer prevented them from meaningfully investigating or pursuing defenses to the serious felony charges facing their clients.
Most of the individuals arrested were said to be indigenous people from Guatemala. Few spoke English and many had only workable knowledge of Spanish, according to reports from churches and other groups helping the detainees and their families.
Little to no access to immigration counsel was provided to defense lawyers to help them determine if their clients had valid claims to U.S. citizenship, legal residency or political asylum. In such demeaning and coercive circumstances, it is no wonder that nearly three out of four of the workers accepted the take-it-or-leave-it plea bargain.
Mass hearings of multiple detainees were held to take pleas and impose sentences.
Instead of Atticus Finch, these defendants got Howie Mandel. Deal or no deal? Answer now.
Lip service was paid to due process and other constitutional guarantees. But make no mistake about what happened. Human beings charged with felonies on U.S. soil were forced to make life-altering decisions in an indefensibly short amount of time and were provided with inadequate counsel, while they were housed and shackled in livestock buildings and federal judges held court in cattle yards.
The U.S. Attorney's Office publicly called the prosecutions an "astonishing success."
Maybe so by some measures of efficacy; certainly not by any measure of moral decency or fairness demanded by our Constitution. Postville fails even as a viable immigration enforcement measure, because it would take 40,000 more Postvilles to arrest, convict and deport all unauthorized immigrants in the United States.
The Postville cases stain the American legal system that protects all of us. They are an affront to justice and human dignity. We can and must do better, or else we forsake who we are as a nation founded upon liberty and justice for all.
Deborah Smith is a lawyer in Helena and an adjunct professor teaching immigration law at the University of Montana School of Law. The views expressed in this opinion are her own.