270 Illegal Immigrants Sent to Prison in Federal Push
In temporary courtrooms at a fairgrounds here [in Waterloo, Iowa], 270 illegal immigrants were sentenced this week to five months in prison for working at a meatpacking plant with false documents.
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 convicted immigrants were among 389 workers detained at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in nearby Postville in a raid that federal officials called the largest criminal enforcement operation ever carried out by immigration authorities at a workplace.
The pleas were part of a deal worked out with prosecutors to avoid even more serious charges. Most immigrants agreed to immediate deportation after they serve five months in prison.
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.
If the immigrants did not plead guilty, [Matt M. Dummermuth, the United States attorney for northern Iowa,] said he would try them on felony identity theft charges that carry a mandatory two-year minimum jail sentence. In many cases, court documents show, the immigrants were working under real Social Security numbers or immigration visas, known as green cards, that belonged to other people.
“The government is not bashful about the fact that they are trying to send a message,” [one of the attorneys representing some of the defendants] said, “that if you get caught working illegally here you will pay a criminal penalty.”