Immigrant Workers in Iowa Denied Interpreter Rights

Erik Camayd-Freixas, one of the interpreters for a group of 400 undocumented workers recently arrested by federal agents in Pottsville, Iowa, recently blew the whistle on the hearings which sent hundreds of the workers to jail without due process.

In an essay titled “Interpreting after the Largest ICE Raid in US History” published in the Monthly Review (July), Camayd-Freixas offered a personal account of a raid by Immigration and Custums Enforcement (ICE) on a meat-packing plant in a small town in Iowa near Waterloo. In one of the largest raids in history, over 400 immigrants were arrested, and over 26 federally-certified interpreters, including Camayd-Freixas, who is a professor at Florida International University, were rushed to an Iowa district courthouse for an immediate “trial.”

The story is significant because it was picked up by the NYTimes. In a July 11 article titled “An Interpreter Speaking up for Migrants” Julie Preston describes how the defendants, most of the villagers from Guatemala, did not understand the charges they were facing or the rights that they had waived. She also reports on how Professor Camayd-Frexas expressed surprise at the pace of the proceedings and the pressure placed upon the defendants to waive their rights to lawyers and interpreters. It is unusual in such cases for prosecutors to press criminal charges instead of merely arguing for deportation.

Of further significance, the editorial page of the NTTimes picked up the story and ran an outspoken editorial in their Sunday, July 13 paper titled “The Shame of Postville, Iowa” condemning the raid as “abusing and terrorizing undocumented immigrant workers.” The editorial quotes Dr. Camayd-Freixas as saying, “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.”

The NYTimes editorial does not deny that some workers were breaking the law; it does take issue with denying defendants their rights and the inhumane treatment such paid employees and family breadwinners received.

For me, as a translation teacher, Erik Camayd-Freixas’s stand raises significant questions regarding the ethics of interpreting. Normally interpreters are trained to remain neutral in such proceedings and not take sides; additionally, they are trained to keep such proceedings confidential. By going public, Erik Camayd-Freixas violated those rules and will probably never work as a federally certified interpreter again.

At what point do alternative sets of ethics take over, such as a personal desire to see justice carried out? At what point do acts of cruelty and injustice override a set of professional ethics? Interpreters, after all, are paid by the state. To whom does their loyalty lie? What are our ethics as US citizens when we see such abuses being committed? What about questions of interpreter abuse is such situations? Did Professor Camayd-Freixas cross a line or can his speaking out be justified?

My sense is that similar abuses are being committed frequently in the United States during the current socio-political situation, yet conducting research on such events is difficult. Cameras are generally forbidden in the courtroom, and although transcripts are available, only the English serves as the official record. Certainly attorney/client records are off limits. Perhaps universities in collaboration with the government and granting institutions, would be allowed to witness such proceedings and in their own way document such hearings with the goal of figuring out ways to improve the delivery of j

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