Postville documentary criticizes sentencings
TONY LEYS • Des Moines Register
A federal judge who participated in controversial court hearings after the huge immigration raid in Postville says the 2008 legal proceedings were "a travesty."
District Judge Mark Bennett, who sentenced 57 of the 389 immigrant workers arrested at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, makes his allegations in a new documentary film about the raid's aftermath.
Critics, including defense lawyers and immigrant advocates, have long contended the Guatemalan and Mexican workers were unfairly pressured into pleading guilty to criminal charges in mass hearings a few days after the raid. After other such raids across the country, most illegal immigrants without previous criminal records were quickly deported. But after the Postville raid, most workers were charged with felonies and served five months in prison before being sent home.
Bennett airs his criticisms in the new documentary, "Abused: The Postville Raid."
The judge told filmmaker Luis Argueta the prosecutors were out of line in pushing immigrant workers to sign binding plea agreements that included the prison time.
"I thought their insisting on each of the defendants serving a five-month sentence was a tragedy," Bennett said.
"But it's an executive branch decision, and I didn't have the power to do anything about it other than not agree to the plea agreement. But if I did that, they would have been held in custody much longer. I found the plea agreement personally and professionally to be offensive, and I thought it was a travesty. And I was embarrassed to be a United States District Court judge that day."
Other critics have said prosecutors told defendants that any who refused to sign the agreements would be tried on charges of felony identity theft, which carried five-year prison sentences. In a separate but similar case, the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled unanimously that such identity-theft charges may not be pressed if an immigrant used someone else's identity solely to gain a job.
Bennett, who is based in Sioux City, was appointed to the bench in 1994 by President Bill Clinton. He is among the judges who have criticized prosecutors over their past use of mandatory sentencing rules. Bennett declined a Des Moines Register request for comment on the documentary.
Bennett also told Argueta he was uncomfortable sentencing the immigrants 10 at a time, because defendants in that situation are less likely to speak up if they don't understand the proceedings.
The judge noted that none of the Postville workers he sentenced had been previously convicted of any crimes.
"To have 57 people in a row that don't even have a single misdemeanor among them is unheard of in federal court," he told the filmmaker. "So if anybody deserved mercy and compassion and fairness and justice, these 57 did. And I don't believe they received it, even though I was the one who imposed sentence, because my hands were tied by the Department of Justice in the case."
Chief District Judge Linda Reade, who helped organize the legal proceedings, and U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose, who was one of the lead prosecutors, declined Register requests for comment about the film.
University of Iowa law professor Margaret Raymond said it is not unprecedented for judges to publicly complain about legal procedures. She cited federal judges' criticism of mandatory sentencing rules, which took away their discretion. Those rules have since become guidelines, which has eased the tension, she said.
Judge Bennett could have rejected the plea agreements and, I believe, could have ordered the defendents released from custody on their own recognizance or with a very small bail. I assume he did not do so because many of the defendants would have fled, and Judge Bennett would have looked foolish.
That said, the plea agreement and the charges against non-violent illegal immigrants are troubling. They were part of the Bush Administration's war against terror, misapplied by the Bush Administration to simple workers.
President Obama changed that policy immediately after taking office, and the government now properly focuses criminal prosecution in these cases on employers – like Rubashkin – who knowingly hire undocumented workers, and not on simple workers themselves.