1. The Essay
fter the raid on 12 May 2008 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents that netted several hundred allegedly undocumented immigrant workers at the Agriprocessor slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in the town of Postville, Iowa, there were widespread protests and criticisms by numerous immigrant and human rights advocacy groups, lawyers, and rank-and-file citizens.
One of the critics was Professor Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor at Florida International University, who served as an interpreter at the subsequent arraignments of the detained workers. He went public with his criticisms, "blowing the whistle" on the operation in an essay entitled "Interpreting after the Largest ICE Raid in US History: A Personal Account," which attracted a great deal of media attention.
Whistle-blowers are advised to keep their arguments on a high professional plane that is impersonal and objective, and to avoid bias, extraneous issues, and emotional outbursts.
Professor Camayd-Freixas performed an act of courage in going public with his opinions and concerns. Whether his actions and his essay were the best way of expressing his opinions and drawing public attention to what he and many observers considered to be injustices perpetrated upon the detained workers is open to argument.
Comment on those portions of the essay that discuss the legal aspects of the Postville operation is best left to legal specialists. I should like here to comment on the author's use of certain rhetorical techniques that I feel may have weakened its effectiveness.
One aspect of the essay that I found particularly troublesome was his effort to manipulate his readers' feelings and opinions. For reasons of economy of space, I shall cite only a few of the examples that caught my attention.
In the third paragraph (the paragraph numbering is mine, for purposes of reference), Professor Camayd-Freixas describes the procession of immigrants (mostly Central American Indians) to the arraignment site, and mentions his realization that "their nationality...was imposed on their people in the 19th century." This is an accurate statement of historical fact, but is not germane in this context, and it seemed to me to have been gratuitously intercalated for the purpose of arousing feelings of guilt among European-American readers, some of whose ancestors may not even have been in this country at that time.
Continuing the sentence, Professor Camayd-Freixas notes that "they too were Native Americans, in shackles." It seems to me that readers are being invited here to perform the following operations of logic: (1) Recall that the Indians of Central America are ethnically related to the "Native Americans," i.e. the Indians of North America; (2) Therefore, equate the treatment of the Postville Central American Indian workers with the countless acts of injustice perpetrated against the North American Indians by the European and European-American settlers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; (3) Therefore, view the government's actions at Postville as yet another episode in the "long trail of tears" experienced by the North American Indians at the hands of the settlers and the U.S. government.
The historical record is not at issue; what I find questionable in this sentence is what appears to be an attempt by the author to manipulate the reader's feelings, emotions, and thought processes.
Professor Camayd-Freixas sometimes appears to harbor feelings of contempt and superiority, another factor that could alienate readers.
In the second paragraph, there is a reference to "the retro 'Electric Park Ballroom.'" The positioning of a substantive within quotation marks is a tactic sometimes used to convey the concept of "purports to be but in fact is not"i.e., something fake. The ballroom is moreover "retro": old-fashioned, outdated. I found myself wondering if this was an invitation to us readers to equate small cities in the U.S. heartland with "lack of sophistication" and "backwardness" (including in matters of economic and social justice?) and perhaps unconsciously attribute these traits to their inhabitants and to the government officials who conduct operations thereincluding even the "good" judge (17th paragraph), this once-common way of referring to professionals being now viewed as condescending.
In the twelfth paragraph Professor Camayd-Freixas describes how he offered one of the detainees a cup of soda. The man "superstitiously" declined, saying it could be "poisoned." Given the circumstances, fear of being poisoned may have been somewhat excessive but was not totally unreasonable, and may have sprung not from superstition but rather from very normal human emotion. "Superstition" is the label we hang on the beliefs and practices of persons and societies we consider "primitive" in the negative sense of the word. I wondered if Professor Camayd-Freixas's feelings about this man and his fellow Postville workers were more ambivalent that he realized or would be willing to acknowledge.
Innuendo and implication are used to cast an unfavorable light on the government officials. At the beginning of the essay, for example, we learn that the Postville raid "officials boastedwas 'the largest single-site operation of its kind in American history.'" We are not told if Professor Camayd-Freixas was present for this statement and witnessed demonstrations of boastful behavior (high fives, jovial back-slapping, broad grins, cheers, pumping of fists) on the part of the officials making it. If he was not, then we need to consider the possibility that the officials were simply making a statement about an historical fact. The use of the word "boasted" would then be inaccurate and misleading, and an effort to "instruct" us readers in what opinion we should form about the officials and the operation.
In the same paragraph, Professor Camayd-Freixas refers to the transformation of the NCC into "a sort of concentration camp or detention center." The term "concentration camp" almost automatically conjures up in the minds of most readers images of the Nazi extermination camps, rather than of one of the many other less horrific, in fact sometimes necessary (e.g., camps for housing large numbers of refugees temporarily) historical examples of such places. The reader is seemingly being encouraged here to equate the U.S. government's treatment of the Postville workers with the actions of one of the most murderous regimes in human history. In addition to demonizing the government's law-enforcement efforts, this equation may be sufficiently exaggerated and over-dramatic to arouse laughter, along with doubts in some readers' minds as to whether the essay and its writer should be taken seriously.
I found the making of assumptions and projections of the author's opinions to be another weak aspect of the essay.
For example, in the last sentence of the seventh paragraph - "One could feel the moral fabric of society coming apart beneath it all" - the identity of the "one" is not indicated. If it was Professor Camayd-Freixas himself, why does he hide behind the evasive "one" instead of owning his opinion? which some readers may in any case find overly dramatic and apocalyptic for the circumstances.
Describing (thirteenth paragraph) the worker to whom he offered the soda, he notes that "His Native American spirit was broken and he could no longer think...He stared for a while at the signature page pretending to read it, although I knew he was actually praying for guidance and protection." This is a moving appeal to the reader's heartstrings...but how did the Professor know that the man's spirit was broken, he could no longer think, was only pretending to read, internally was praying for guidance and protection? Absent factual information about the source of this statement ("He told me that..."), these are simply unsupported assumptions about the man's internal state.
Professor Camayd-Freixas describes (sixteenth paragraph) seeing "judges, prosecutors, clerks, and marshals do their duty, sometimes with a heavy heart, sometimes at least with mixed feelings, but always with a particular solemnity not accorded to the common criminals we all are used to encountering in the judicial system." Here again, absent specific identification ("Many of the officials later told me that they felt..."), this is a globalizing assumption (or perhaps a projection of the professor's own feelings) unsupported by evidence.
The essay ends with a rhetorical flourish: the words "This is not humane," "There has to be a better way," spoken, "with quiet anguish," by "a mature all-American woman, a mother." I am guessing that "mature woman" was intended to convey an image of hard-earned human decency and wisdom. (For some readers it may convey instead an image of a crone, by still- prevalent definition a person of dubious mental competence.) I have no idea what an "all-American" woman is (perhaps a woman of visibly unmixed European ancestry?), or how Professor Camayd-Freixas knew this unidentified woman was such, and a mother to boot, but by the time I reached this point in the essay I was too irritated by his manipulatory tactics to care.
And herein lies the crux of the concern aroused in me by the essay. The numerous instances of such manipulation in this essay may have produced among many readers exactly the opposite of the effect I believe was desired by the author. Irritated readers may decide that Professor Camayd-Freixas and his essay and, perhaps, all critics of the Postville operation, are not worthy of attention, and represent nothing more than "knee-jerk liberalism" at its worst. The essay may thus have done a disservice to the cause of the detained immigrant workers, their advocates, and the important questions of law and ethics raised by the operation.
2. The Issues
At Postville, Professor Camayd-Freixas made a number of decisions and judgment calls. Were they ethically, morally, and legally justified? Did they effectively serve the interests of the immigrant workers? Immigration reform advocacy? Good government? The cause of justice? The American people? The public's view of the language professions? Himself?
In these matters, the color scheme is seldom black or white, it is black and white and, above all, infinite shades of gray. So categorical answers to such questions are not possible.
One of the issues raised in respect of Professor Camayd-Freixas is conflict of interest. Some observers have argued that the professor violated the Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts and the Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators (NAJIT).
In the eighth paragraph of his essay, he specifically discusses this issue and the reasoning underpinning his decision to "stay the course and see what happened next." He cites the pertinent provision of the Standards ("Interpreters shall disclose any real or perceived conflict of interest...and shall not serve in any matter in which they have a conflict of interest.").
Canon 2 of the NAJIT Code is similarly clear: "Any real or potential conflict of interest shall be immediately disclosed to the Court and all parties as soon as the interpreter or translator becomes aware of such conflict of interest."
Professor Camayd-Freixas appears to have become uneasy about his possible conflict of interest at a fairly early stage in the proceedings: "The question was did I have one [conflict of interest]. Well, at that point there was not enough evidence to make that determination." He acknowledges that he had practical concerns: He was "far from home," he was "holding a half-spent $1,800 plane ticket." He does not mention the prospect of loss of income if he withdrew from the assignment, but this understandable concern may have been in his mind.
In a mysterious sentence in the seventh paragraph of the essay, he notes that "a contract interpreter has the right to refuse a job which conflicts with his moral intuitions," "[B]ut I had been deprived of that opportunity." This appears to be a reference to the fact that the vague advance information given to the interpreters about the nature of the assignment was not sufficient to allow them to make a well-reasoned decision about acceptance or non-acceptance. He does not explain how he was "prevented" from exercising his right once he learned of the details.
What was the best course of action in these circumstances? Should he have discussed his concerns with the appropriate personnel? Sought legal advice (perhaps not possible in the heat of the moment)? Stayed at his post and made whatever little contribution he could to the proper administration of justice and fair treatment for all parties (perhaps while keeping notes so that he could blow the whistle later)? Heeded his intuition and withdrawn from the assignment (perhaps then going public about his action and his reasons)? We can argue ad infinitum for any of these solutions and probably others: there is no one "correct," one-size-fits-all decision. Professor Camayd-Freixas decided to stay at his post. Whether one of his motivating factors was the prospect of blowing the whistle afterwards, only he can say.
Another issue raised is breach of the professional-confidentiality obligation. Professor Camayd-Freixas appears not to have revealed privileged or confidential information of which he learned during his performance of his assignment, so it can be argued that he did not breach his obligation. However, I raise the question of whether in going public with his opinions he can be accused of having violated one of the provisions of Canon 2 of the NAJIT Code: "Court interpreters and translators shall abstain from comment on matters in which they serve."
I also felt uneasy as I read his description (in the nineteenth paragraph of his essay) of his ex post facto conversation with one of the judges. It seems to me that in addition to engaging in questionable "comment on matters in which they serve," both the interpreter and the judge demonstrated a certain lack of impartiality, and that they would have done well to recuse themselves. However, I think this is arguable, and in any case a matter for discussion by ethics specialists.
Finally, there is the complex issue of ethical dissent and whistle-blowing. The advice generally given to individuals who discover wrongdoing in organizations is to try first to work within their organization to create change, and to "go public" in the media only as a last resort. It seems to me that, given the circumstances, going public right from the start was the only way Professor Camayd-Freixas could bring his ethical concerns to public notice.
But several questions occur to me. What if he had quietly discussed his concerns with his fellow interpreters and persuaded many of them, with luck even most of them, to withdraw from the assignment? Would the resulting logistical problems have hampered the proceedings sufficiently to force the government officials to rethink and retool? Above all: Would word of this "job action" have reached the eyes and ears of the media, which would have then have done the job of publicizing the issues?arguably a far more effective method of whistle-blowing, in the sense that instead of being an act susceptible to insinuations about personal interests (pride, revenge, personal gain) of one (possibly disgruntled) individual it would instead have become a principled act of protest by a large group of people, and therefore more likely to draw public attention to the issues. Was such an option feasible? Available? It is impossible to say. All this is in the realm of speculation.
Whistle-blowers are also advised to keep their arguments on a high professional plane that is impersonal and objective, and to avoid bias, extraneous issues, and emotional outbursts. In my opinion, the professor's essay suffers from several failings in this regard. I find that it is weakened by exaggeration, use of emotional manipulation, sentimentality, and visible bias. There appears to be an unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility that some of the detainees might have been more knowledgeable of the pertinent U.S. laws than they let on and might in fact have committed crimes, and that the government might have had some legitimate grounds for its actions, notwithstanding possibly justified criticism of its methods; and to recognize that "their side" is just as entitled as "our side" to respect for differing opinions and to a presumption of innocence and good intention until the contrary is proved. I believe that a less biased account, written in a sober, restrained style that allowed the facts to speak for themselves, might have better served the cause of immigration reform advocacy and proper administration of justice. But this, again, is speculation.
In any case, the Postville case and the whistle-blowing role of Professor Erik Camayd-Freixas can be seen as a wake-up call for us language specialists and our professional organizations. Situations that require us to make decisions of conscience involving the ethics of withdrawal from job assignments, confidentiality, and whistle-blowing can crop up without warning. If recent events are any indication, they may arise more frequently in the future than was the case in the past. It would be helpful for us to discuss the issues now, consult with lawyers and ethics specialists on best ways to deal with them, and prepare guidelines so that we will be ready for future contingencies.