Local News

Program Introduces Aliens to U.S. Justice System

Posted February 14, 2007 11:34 p.m. EST
Updated February 15, 2007 12:05 a.m. EST

— This year, estimates are that 1.5 million legal and illegal immigrants will enter the United States. Many will have no or very little knowledge about their legal rights and how the the U.S. justice system works.

A group in Hoke County is working to change that with a series of teaching sessions for immigrants, most of the Hispanic.

A few weeks after workers protested about conditions at the Smithfield Packing Co. slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, 21 undocumented workers were arrested last month.

"Our focus is to educate the workers," Emma Herrera of the Work Center, a non-profit organization, said.

You could call it a crash course in criminology—more than 60 Hispanic workers and their families showed up Wednesday evening to learn from Herrera.

"The community needs to have more information about what is their rights and also the workers’ rights when they're arrested by ICE," Herrera said. ICE is the acronym for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that is in charge of capturing illegal immigrants.

No lawyers are present. There is only advice from Herrera and the Work Center, which plans several more workshops across the state.

The sessions teach the basics of the justice system, such as the right to remain silent if arrested, and advise workers to have a plan in place if the breadwinner is taken into custody.

The sessions are intended for documented workers who might be arrested, though Herrera admits there is no way to stop illegals from coming, too.

The prospect of helping people who are trying to avoid the law raises some suspicions.

State Sen. Phil Berger, R-Guilford County, said, “"I think that anyone dealing with our justice system has a right to information." He says he is supportive as long as the program deals with how the justice system works and not how to “work” the system.

“If what they're doing is teaching people how to avoid or dodge the law, then I think it's a problem, Berger said."

The next step for the Work Center will be tackling taxes for Hispanic workers. The organization said it will hold a special meeting later this week to help them meet the April 15 deadline.