In temporary courtrooms at a Iowa fairgrounds, 270 illegal immigrants were sentenced last week to five months in prison for working at a meatpacking plant with false documents, reports the New York Times. The prosecutions, which ended Friday, signal a sharp escalation in the Bush administration's crackdown on illegal workers,. Prosecutors brought tough federal criminal charges against most of the immigrants arrested in a May 12 raid. Until now, unauthorized workers have generally been detained for civil violations and rapidly deported.
The convicted immigrants were among 389 workers detained at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville, Ia., in a raid that federal officials called the largest criminal enforcement operation ever carried out by immigration authorities at a workplace. Matt Dummermuth, United States attorney for northern Iowa, called the operation an “astonishing success.” The swift proceedings, in which 297 immigrants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in four days, were criticized by criminal defense lawyers, who warned of violations of due process. Most immigrants agreed to immediate deportation after they serve five months in prison. For those who did not plead guilty, Dummermuth said he would press felony identity theft charges that carry a mandatory two-year minimum jail sentence.