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20 former Agriprocessors workers get visas

POSTVILLE, Iowa (AP)--Twenty former workers at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant, in Postville, have received visas under a law that protects crime victims.

The first wave of women and children arrested last year at the plant have been granted U-visas by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, allowing them to legally live and work in the country for four years. They can apply for a green card in the third year.

Sonia Parras-Konrad, a Des Moines attorney who led the effort, says the visas are a big step toward vindicating the immigrants and giving them justice.

"A government entity has found, indeed, that these women and children have been subjected to extreme emotional or physical harm by Agriprocessors," Parras-Konrad said. "These people have been exploited, have been assaulted, have been humiliated, have been verbally and emotionally abused by this employer."

To be eligible for the visas the former workers must meet several requirements, including assisting authorities in any pertinent investigations.

Maria Gomez, 31, said when Parras-Konrad told her about the visas over the phone she couldn't catch her breath and could only mumble a quick "thank you." Gomez had an electronic monitoring bracelet removed just last week.

"I ran home, and I started to cry for joy," she said.

Most of Gomez's relatives have been deported to Guatemala. She hopes her husband will soon secure a visa. The only reason he was not deported, she said, was because he was not working at the time of the raid.

Bob Teig, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Cedar Rapids, says the workers are not innocent bystanders and admitted to using false documents to work in the U.S. illegally.

"The thing being overlooked repeatedly is that they broke the law, and they all admitted it," he said.

Parras-Konard said 32 visa applications are pending. None have been rejected, she said.

She said winning the cases clearly demonstrates that many immigrants who have been deported should be able to plead their cases for a visa.

Immediately after the May 12, 2008 raid at the kosher meatpacking plant, immigration attorneys tried to meet with some of the 389 workers who had been arrested. The workers had been processed in a temporary courtroom at the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo.

Prosecutors argued that the investigation was ongoing and the immigration attorney's were denied access to the workers.

By the time they gained access, most of the workers had pleaded guilty and were transferred elsewhere. Only the women and children were released on humanitarian grounds.

"That's the sad part of this. I feel we missed a lot of people, not because we didn't want to serve them, but because they were removed and we couldn't get to them on time," Parras-Konrad said.

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