What rights does an immigrant have?

Swift plant raid
Workers were led out of the Swift meatpacking plant in Worthington toward waiting ICE buses on Dec. 12, 2006.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Lawyers have been busy taking statements since Dec. 12, the day hundreds of federal agents shut down a half dozen Swift and Company meatpacking plants across the U.S. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents arrested almost 1,300 workers. Immigration lawyers claim the rights of some people were violated in the raids.

The focus of the legal claims is on people like Loida Cruz of Worthington. The Guatemala native says she was handcuffed and detained when ICE agents came to the Swift plant in southwest Minnesota.

Loida Cruz
Loida Cruz of Worthington is a permanent legal resident of the U.S. and an employee of the Worthington Swift meatpacking plant.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"The ICE officials would jam their fingers in between our wrists and the plastic to prove that it wasn't tight, and then they would laugh," says Cruz. "A lot of the people were saying that we're not criminals, why are we treated this way?"

Unlike most of the people handcuffed that day, Cruz is in the U.S. legally. Though she was not arrested, Cruz was detained for nearly six hours until federal officials verified her immigration status. She still works at the plant.

Workers like Cruz may be able to argue they were wrongly held, according to Marielena Hincapie, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.

"So far, given the initial anecdotal reports, it does sound as though the way that the raids were carried out were egregious and potentially did violate individuals' civil rights," says Hincapie.

Hincapie says non-citizens with legitimate papers have basically the same rights as U.S. citizens. Among those rights is constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

"We've heard just a range of concerns -- and individual cases where people who were authorized to work, who were sometimes detained for hours, shackled, handcuffed, taken on buses," says Hincapie. "We believe some have actually been detained overnight."

Tim Counts
Tim Counts is spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Twin Cities.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Hincapie also claims some U.S. citizens were detained in the Swift raids, but she is unable to provide names.

So far, the only citizen to publicly complain about unfair treatment is a worker in Nebraska. Jesus Nava told the Grand Island Independent newspaper he was held for more than five hours before convincing agents of his citizenship.

Immigration officials say the raids on the Swift meatpacking plants were completely legal. Tim Counts, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the Twin Cities, says courts have upheld the rights of federal agents to question people until they're satisfied about a person's residency status. Counts says a crucial fact is being overlooked in the post-raid debate.

"Permanent residents or green card holders are required by law to carry their card with them at all times," says Counts. "So many people had their green cards with them. Many other people had them brought in by friends or family members. But in some cases there were people who turned out to be permanent residents who could not produce the evidence to establish that status immediately."

That included Loida Cruz of Worthington. She doesn't carry her green card because she's afraid of losing it or having it stolen. Replacing the card is an expensive, time-consuming process.

Whether immigration agents gave workers reasonable time to produce their documents could be a deciding factor in some cases. Past government actions may also be a factor.

Marielena Hincapie with the National Immigration Law Center says Swift participated in federal programs designed to verify a person's immigration status. She says the federal agents should have analyzed that data to find the lawbreakers. She says if they had done that, the legal workers may have been left alone.

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