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Postville Raid: A Look Inside the Temporary Courtroom
The setting is different, but the process remains basically the same.
Initial court appearances for the individuals who stand criminally charged following the immigration raids on Agriprocessors in Postville began Tuesday night in Waterloo and continued today.
Immigrant detainees file in and out of the Electric Park Ballroom on the campus of the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo in groups of 10 for their first appearance before a federal judge. The detainees, all men except for a group of nine women that were a part of the first proceedings Wednesday morning, are bound by handcuffs at the wrists as well as chains from their upper torso to their ankles.
The court proceedings take place on the wooden floor area of the facility that is typically the site of disc jockeys and dancers. A line of black curtains has been placed midway across the dance floor, a seal for the court affixed at the center, just above the makeshift judge’s bench. Clerks and other court officials flank the judge’s bench at long tables placed to the right and left. The tables are filled with computer equipment and paperwork. Directly in front of the judge’s bench are two tables, one for the defense and one for the prosecution. Near the defense table is a line of 11 chairs — one for each of the 10 defendants and one for an interpreter.
There are three interpreters present at each hearing. One provides translation of the judge’s words to the 10 defendants, who wear special ear phone devices so that they can hear the translator clearly. Each group coming before the judge is asked if the translation system is working properly before the actual hearing commences.
The roughly 15 observers — members of the media, advocates and other interested parties — sit in rows of seats near the main entrance to the facility, behind a thigh-level row of black curtains that separate observers from those taking part in the proceedings. Several men in flak jackets and shirts labeled with “U.S. MARSHAL” stand and sit behind the observers. Similar law enforcement officials escort the detainee groups into the makeshift courtroom and out again.
The National Cattle Congress in Waterloo is basically a fairgrounds facility that has a full perimeter fence. For these proceedings, however, additional fencing and barricades have been installed. Members of the media are directed away from the main entrance, which is used primarily by law enforcement and court officials such as interpreters, to a side entrance near the Electric Park Ballroom. Members of the media, after passing through an initial security check, are directed to park outside the actual facility on a grassy area. (The parking lot at that location appears to be reserved for law enforcement, advocates and defense attorneys.)
Members of the media then walk into and across the fenced parking area to a more intense security checkpoint located in a temporary shelter. Individuals passing through this area must provide state identification, such as a driver’s license, and empty their pockets to pass through a metal detector. No cameras or mobile phones are permitted beyond this point.
Because of the camera restrictions, some members of the media have positioned themselves along the fences and are using zoom lenses to attempt to capture the scene on film. Because of the layout of the building, the temporary security structures and the route taken by law enforcement as detainees are moved from one location to another, most photographers are frustrated.
The initial court appearance is very basic. Most detainees have only recently been given a sheet of paper that outlines the criminal charges against them. Because the complaint is written in English and there are limited translators, some entering the courtroom have no real knowledge of the charges against them. The judge explains that an attorney has been appointed to represent all of the defendants at the hearing and, if the defendants agree to use that attorney at the court’s expense, he or she will meet with them following the initial appearance. During the four or five court hearings observed, all of the defendants present opted to use the court-appointed attorney.
The process is slow and a bit cumbersome due to the need for translators. At various times the detainees are requested to raise a hand to indicate understanding.
By and large the detainees are Hispanic and young. Most look to be in their late teens or early 20s. Few make eye contact with court officials or observers as they move in and out of the facility. Of those who did make eye contact, there was no spark of facial expression.
When the judge asks if the detainees have questions, there are few who speak up. Of those who do speak, the questions are basic: “Is there any way to speed up this process?” or “Can I not have an attorney?” It’s obvious that some have little understanding of the court process or what might be happening over the course of next few days and weeks.
The court-appointed defense attorneys are assigned detainees in the same groups of 10 that come in for initial appearances. Status hearings are scheduled for next week at the National Cattle Congress facility and preliminary hearings for the following week.
At a press conference yesterday, the media were told by representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that a total of 20 individuals were facing criminal charges. By today at noon, according to Bob Teig, communications director for the U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Iowa, that number had blossomed to 125. Of those facing criminal charges, only nine are women.
Once an individual is charged and he or she has an initial court appearance, the individual is placed in the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Office and transported out of the temporary facility and into area county jails. It is anticipated that many will be housed in Linn County facilities, near the permanent home of the court. Those accused will be transported back to the National Cattle Congress campus for scheduled status hearings next week.
Detainees not facing criminal charges, but still subject to immigration investigation, continue in the custody of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). Those detainees are also expected to be removed from the temporary location — most are expected to be removed from the state to ICE detention facilities. The closest such facility is in Omaha, Neb.
“This process doesn’t have many major differences from the types of processes that happen at ICE offices on a daily basis,” said Tim Counts, public affairs officer for the Department of Homeland Security. “The difference here is that the geographical location has been compressed to the NCC grounds in Waterloo. This was done because of the large scope as well as for the convenience of all concerned.”
Counts said he anticipates that those detainees remaining in the custody of ICE will be removed from the temporary location either late tonight or tomorrow.