DES MOINES, Iowa -- Ten women detained in an immigration raid at a northeast Iowa meatpacking plant have been allowed to return to their homelands.
A federal immigration judge in Chicago granted requests from the women in a move that was opposed by federal immigration officials.
"It's essentially a legal slap on the wrist," Tim Counts, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Thursday. "We believe if somebody has violated federal immigration laws, there should be consequences for it."
The women have been in legal limbo since the May 12 raid, the biggest such action at a single site in U.S. history. They were among 389 Agriprocessors workers accused of entering the country illegally.
Counts said the U.S. attorney's office prosecuted 305 people on criminal charges. The others, including the 10 women, were not criminally charged but faced immigration violations. Federal agents allowed a number of women to avoid initial prosecution because they were caring for children. They were ordered to wear electronic monitoring devices on their ankles.
Counts said Judge James Fujimoto of Chicago last week granted the women's requests for voluntary departure to return to Guatemala and Mexico.
Counts said he did not know the reasons behind the judge's decision.
"In this situation, we said we opposed it. We believe that since most of the other people arrested had been ordered deported that everyone should have the same consequence," Counts said.
Counts said 20 to 25 people arrested in Postville are still wearing electronic monitoring devices while awaiting a hearing before a federal immigration judge. He said 30 others have been deported, and the rest are serving prison sentences for criminal convictions.
Sonia Parras Konrad, an immigration attorney in Des Moines, who represents some of the women, told The Des Moines Register that some have left the country since the judge's order. She said others did not ask for voluntary departure because they are seeking special visas to stay in the U.S.
A message for Parras Konrad by The Associated Press on Thursday was not immediately returned.
The federal immigration court, formally the Executive Office for Immigration Review, is under the U.S. Department of Justice.
Court spokeswoman Elaine Komis said Thursday that under voluntary departure a person can voluntary leave the country within a specific period and is not subject to penalties against returning to the U.S. legally.
If a person is removed, or deported, and wants to return to the U.S., there are certain restrictions limiting their ability to enter the country. Komis said in some cases, people can be permanently barred from returning.
"That's the benefit of obtaining a ruling of voluntary departure rather than removal," she said.
The Rev. Lloyd Paul Ouderkirk of St. Bridget's Roman Catholic Church in Postville, said two of the women have returned to their home countries. He said officials at the church, which helped the women with housing and food, were told by lawyers not to name the immigrants.
Ouderkirk said he wished the women could have remained.
"It's a sad feeling, even if it's progress for these women," he said. "We've supported them and gotten to know them. They're going home, but it's our loss, too."