An Interpreter Speaking Up for Migrants

Siegel, Jason F. siegeljf at
Fri Jul 11 14:52:54 UTC 2008

An Interpreter Speaking Up for Migrants

Published: July 11, 2008
WATERLOO, Iowa — In 23 years as a certified Spanish interpreter for 
federal courts, Erik Camayd-Freixas has spoken up in criminal trials 
many times, but the words he uttered were rarely his own.

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Alex Quesada for The New York Times
Erik Camayd-Freixas is a certified Spanish interpreter.
Then he was summoned here by court officials to translate in the 
hearings for nearly 400 illegal immigrant workers arrested in a raid on 
May 12 at a meatpacking plant. Since then, Mr. Camayd-Freixas, a 
professor of Spanish at Florida International University, has taken the 
unusual step of breaking the code of confidentiality among legal 
interpreters about their work.

In a 14-page essay he circulated among two dozen other interpreters who 
worked here, Professor Camayd-Freixas wrote that the immigrant 
defendants whose words he translated, most of them villagers from 
Guatemala, did not fully understand the criminal charges they were 
facing or the rights most of them had waived.

In the essay and an interview, Professor Camayd-Freixas said he was 
taken aback by the rapid pace of the proceedings and the pressure 
prosecutors brought to bear on the defendants and their lawyers by 
pressing criminal charges instead of deporting the workers immediately 
for immigration violations.

He said defense lawyers had little time or privacy to meet with their 
court-assigned clients in the first hectic days after the raid. Most of 
the Guatemalans could not read or write, he said. Most did not 
understand that they were in criminal court.

“The questions they asked showed they did not understand what was going 
on,” Professor Camayd-Freixas said in the interview. “The great 
majority were under the impression they were there because of being 
illegal in the country, not because of Social Security fraud.”

During fast-paced hearings in May, 262 of the illegal immigrants 
pleaded guilty in one week and were sentenced to prison — most for five 
months — for knowingly using false Social Security cards or legal 
residence documents to gain jobs at the Agriprocessors kosher meat 
plant in nearby Postville. It was the largest criminal enforcement 
operation ever carried out by immigration authorities at a workplace.

The essay has provoked new questions about the Agriprocessors 
proceedings, which had been criticized by criminal defense and 
immigration lawyers as failing to uphold the immigrants’ right to due 
process. Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and 
chairwoman of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said she 
would hold a hearing on the prosecutions and call Professor 
Camayd-Freixas as a witness.

“The essay raises questions about whether the charges brought were 
supported by the facts,” Ms. Lofgren said.

Bob Teig, a spokesman for Matt M. Dummermuth, the United States 
attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, said the immigrants’ 
constitutional rights were not compromised.

“All defendants were provided with experienced criminal attorneys and 
interpreters before they made any decisions in their criminal cases,” 
Mr. Teig said. “Once they made their choices, two independent judicial 
officers determined the defendants were making their choices freely and 
voluntarily, were satisfied with their attorney, and were, in fact, 

Mr. Teig said the judges in the cases were satisfied with the guilty pleas.

“The judges had the right and duty to reject any guilty plea where a 
defendant was not guilty,” Mr. Teig said. “No plea was rejected.”

The essay by Professor Camayd-Freixas, who is the director of a program 
to train language interpreters at the university, has also caused a 
stir among legal interpreters. In telephone calls and debates through 
e-mail, they have discussed whether it was appropriate for a translator 
to speak publicly about conversations with criminal defendants who were 
covered by legal confidentiality.

“It is quite unusual that a legal interpreter would go to this length 
of writing up an essay and taking a strong stance,” said Nataly Kelly, 
an analyst with Common Sense Advisory, a marketing research company 
focused on language services. Ms. Kelly is a certified legal 
interpreter who is the author of a manual about interpreting.

The Agriprocessors hearings were held in temporary courtrooms in mobile 
trailers and a ballroom at the National Cattle Congress, a fairgrounds 
here in Waterloo. Professor Camayd-Freixas worked with one defense 
lawyer, Sara L. Smith, translating her discussions with nine clients 
she represented. He also worked in courtrooms during plea and 
sentencing hearings.

Ms. Smith praised Professor Camayd-Freixas’s essay, saying it captured 
the immigrants’ distress during “the surreal two weeks” of the 
proceedings. She said he had not revealed information that was 
detrimental to her cases.

But she cautioned that interpreters should not commonly speak publicly 
about conversations between lawyers and clients. “It is not a practice 
that I would generally advocate as I could envision circumstances under 
which such revelations could be damaging to a client’s case,” Ms. Smith 

Professor Camayd-Freixas said he had considered withdrawing from the 
assignment, but decided instead that he could play a valuable role by 
witnessing the proceedings and making them known.

He suggested many of the immigrants could not have knowingly committed 
the crimes in their pleas. “Most of the clients we interviewed did not 
even know what a Social Security card was or what purpose it served,” 
he wrote.

He said many immigrants could not distinguish between a Social Security 
card and a residence visa, known as a green card. They said they had 
purchased fake documents from smugglers in Postville, or obtained them 
directly from supervisors at the Agriprocessors plant. Most did not 
know that the original cards could belong to Americans and legal 
immigrants, Mr. Camayd-Freixas said.

Ms. Smith went repeatedly over the charges and the options available to 
her clients, Professor Camayd-Freixas said. He cited the reaction of 
one Guatemalan, Isaías Pérez Martínez: “No matter how many times his 
attorney explained it, he kept saying, ‘I’m illegal, I have no rights. 
I’m nobody in this country. Just do whatever you want with me.’ ”

Professor Camayd-Freixas said Mr. Pérez Martínez wept during much of 
his meeting with Ms. Smith.

Ms. Smith, like more than a dozen other court-appointed defense 
lawyers, concluded that none of the immigrants’ legal options were 
good. Prosecutors had evidence showing they had presented fraudulent 
documents when they were hired at Agriprocessors.

In plea agreements offered by Mr. Dummermuth, the immigrants could 
plead guilty to a document fraud charge and serve five months in 
prison. Otherwise, prosecutors would try them on more serious identity 
theft charges carrying a mandatory sentence of two years. In any 
scenario, even if they were acquitted, the immigrants would eventually 
be deported.

Worried about families they had been supporting with their wages, the 
immigrants readily chose to plead guilty because they did understand 
that was the fastest way to return home, Professor Camayd-Freixas said.

“They were hoping and they were begging everybody to deport them,” he said.

Ms. Smith said she was convinced after examining the prosecutors’ 
evidence that it was not in her clients’ interests to go to trial.

“I think they understood what their options were,” she said. “I tried 
to make it very clear.”

Legal interpreters familiar with the profession said that Professor 
Camayd-Freixas’ essay, while a notable departure from the norm, did not 
violate professional standards.

Isabel Framer, a certified legal interpreter from Ohio who is 
chairwoman of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and 
Translators, said Professor Camayd-Freixas did not go public while the 
cases were still in court or reveal information that could not be 
discerned from the record. Ms. Framer said she was speaking for herself 
because her organization had not taken an official position on the 

“Interpreters, just like judges and attorneys, have an obligation to 
maintain the confidentiality of the process,” she said. “But they don’t 
check their ethical standards at the door.”

Jason F. Siegel
Ph.D. Student, Linguistics & French Linguistics
Department of French & Italian
Ballantine Hall 642
1020 East Kirkwood Avenue
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405-7103
siegeljf at

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