POSTVILLE - When a judge recently dismissed immigration charges against an Agriprocessors Inc., executive, for the first time in a year undocumented workers trapped in a legal limbo allowed themselves to hope for deportation.
More than two dozen admitted illegal workers living in Northeast Iowa 18 months after an immigration raid on the kosher meatpacking plant find themselves in an unusual impasse: The government has ordered them deported, and many can't wait to leave. Yet they remain, waiting for the American legal system to give them the boot.
"Many at this point said they are ready to deport themselves. They would love nothing more than to buy a plane ticket and go home to their families," said Sonia Parras-Konrad, an Des Moines-based immigration attorney.
A patchwork of unevenly applied immigration and criminal laws have left the workers confused and with a hardening sense of injustice, immigrants and their advocates said.
Some were asked to testify against former plant executive Sholom Rubashkin for a trial that never materialized. He was convicted on 86 counts of financial fraud, and faces more than 1,000 years in prison. The government has since dropped the immigration charges, which carry lesser penalties.
On Wednesday, the government released all but four of 24 immigrants being held as material witnesses. The move paves the way for deportation, though some could still wait months for an overloaded immigration court system to send them home.
In exchange for putting their lives on hold, the government witnesses received temporary work permits and had their electronic monitoring ankle bracelets removed. Some even returned to the plant, now operated by Agri Star Meat and Poultry LLC.
Laura Castillo, 24, was sentenced to five months in prison after the raid. The government deported most upon release, but she remained to testify. So, for more than a year, she has waited.
Her son, for whom she journeyed north to afford asthma treatments, will soon turn 5. She fears he will not recognize her when they reunite.
"It's a joke to me and all my co-workers that they have left us here. For me it's a waste of time," she said in Spanish. "The government only cares about the fraud Sholom (Rubashkin) committed. They don't care about the abuse he committed against the undocumented workers because he knew we were all here illegally."
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the northern district of Iowa declined to comment.
Read more of this story in Sunday's Courier.