Wearing crimson jumpsuits and shackled by the wrist and ankles, eight Latino men—ranging from 18 to 40 years old—pleaded guilty in federal district court in Raleigh Tuesday to charges of illegally entering the U.S.
Magistrate Judge James E. Gates sentenced each man to 30 days in jail, with credit for the two weeks served. Gates said the workers would be released Dec. 14 and immediately deported to Mexico. "The court believes this punishment is appropriate," he said.
The eight men are among 18 employees of the Durham-based J&A Framing and Carpentry who were rounded up last week during U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at three work sites in Cary, Apex and Chapel Hill.
The employer, Jose Lopez, has not been charged and was not in court for the hearing.
During the raids, ICE also visited the homes of several employees and detained two minors, said Marty Rosenbluth, executive director of the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project, who is representing the juveniles.
These types of cases are usually handled in immigration court, so it is unusual that the hearings were held in federal district court. ICE officials have refused to comment on the case or the rationale for the venue change.
"Why are they prosecuting these people on the criminal level," Rosenbluth said, "when almost all these cases are handled on the immigration level?"
"This is a rare case," added Abril Torres, protection and legal affairs specialist with the Mexican Consulate in Raleigh. She said many questions remain on what charges will be brought against the remaining 10 men.
Torres' priority, she said, has been to ensure the workers' human rights were respected and that they had a fair trial. She is also working with the workers' family members who are obtaining documents to return to Mexico.
After the hearing, Torres handed the men the documents they needed to sign so that their children could receive the proper papers to go back home. Torres said she has spent hours working with the wives, girlfriends and mothers who are packing up their belongings and preparing for their journey back to Mexico.
"If your husband is deported, what's left for you or your kids?" Torres said.