On Decoding ICE Press Releases; or, Why Was That Farmer Criminally Charged?

By David North on April 5, 2011

The ICE press release headline read:

"Upstate New York dairy farmer charged with harboring illegal aliens"

I had two reactions: first, why should this be news – shouldn't ICE being doing this all the time? My sense is that many farms hire and harbor illegals, and that few are fined, much less charged with a criminal offense.

Secondly, why was this farmer sorted out for this treatment? The full text of the press release, which follows, spoke to neither of those concerns:

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - An Adams, N.Y., farmer was arrested Wednesday and charged with harboring illegal aliens, following a joint investigation by U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.

John Barney, 47, was taken into custody by ICE HSI special agents after a criminal complaint was filed in federal court charging Barney with harboring illegal aliens. The announcement was made by U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York Richard S. Hartunian. Barney made his initial appearance Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew T. Baxter, and was released on his own recognizance.

If found guilty, Barney faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

This case is being investigated by the Syracuse ICE HSI office and being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ransom P. Reynolds.

I have no inside knowledge of this matter, do not know any of the people involved, and had to look up Jefferson County to see where it is on the map (it is next to Canada and includes the U.S. portion of the Thousand Islands), but I do know something about writing government press releases, as I was guilty of that in the late 1990s, for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

My suspicion was that Mr. Barney must have been doing something else to attract not only the attention of the ICE enforcement people, but also the ICE publicists. The press release was not helpful, and I could not find any local newspaper coverage on the internet, but I thought that if ICE had made a federal criminal charge, as it had, there would be information on PACER, the federal court's data site.

I was right, and soon discovered the real story, that neither the local press nor ICE bothered to report. (As background, I spent some time on dairy farms in my youth, and my father and both my grandfathers owned small farms of that kind.)

So why did Farmer Barney wind up in federal court, when so many other farmers employ illegals and stay out of trouble?

The PACER file started with a criminal complaint that reported that the Jefferson County (N.Y.) emergency services had been dispatched to Butterville Farm because of an injury to one of Barney's hired hands. Let's pick up the story from the complaint, written by an ICE employee:

. . . upon arrival at the farm, the emergency personnel was directed to a Hispanic male later identified as "PL." EMS personnel . . . attempted to treat PL, but determined that he had expired. A subsequent autopsy examination found multiple injuries to his head, neck and ribs most likely sustained by a fall from a fence during dairying operations. To date, there have not been any New York State criminal charges filed in connection with his death, which appears to be accidental in nature . . . ICE agents later determined that PL was a citizen of Guatemala and had illegally entered the United States.

From what I remember as a Midwestern farm boy, dairy fences are usually made of wire and rarely are more than five feet tall. I suppose you could try to climb over one and fall and kill yourself, but it sounds pretty unlikely to me. Falling out of the hay mow, on the other hand, might more likely lead to fatal injuries, but that possibility was not discussed.

One of the joys of reading a court document like this one is to absorb a cop's pedestrian prose style, and, in this case, to read how a city person observes life in the country. "Dairying operations" is not a term used on the farm.

As you plod through the nine-page complaint you learn some other reasons why ICE paid attention to this case: not only were there several illegals on the farm in addition to the deceased, and not only had there been a death (which sounds suspicious to me), but Farmer Barney also deducted Social Security and Medicare taxes (described as "Medicaid" taxes by the agent) when he had been provided with no Social Security card or number.

The point of all this is that you probably need to do more than "just" break the immigration law to draw a criminal indictment, and you often need to look a little farther than an ICE press release to understand what is actually happening.

All too often government press releases are written to pat the agency on the back (often for something it should be doing routinely), to play down variables that might lead to more work for the publicist (like questions about a suspicious death), and to put the names of friendly players into print.

A large portion of this very short press release deals with the names of the two lawyers handling the case (presumably valuable allies of the local ICE office), and the name of the federal magistrate judge.

Also, it apparently is more important, in this case, to get the full name of your own agency in print – "U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)" – and all the correct initials, than it is to mention the death of a human being that caused the investigation.

It is all too familiar to me, but then I am a recovering government publicist.