In temporary courtrooms at a Waterloo fairgrounds, nearly 300 illegal immigrants were sentenced this week to five months in prison for working...

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WATERLOO, Iowa — In temporary courtrooms at a Waterloo fairgrounds, nearly 300 illegal immigrants were sentenced this week to five months in prison for working at a kosher meatpacking plant with false documents.

The prosecutions, which ended Friday, signal an escalation in the Bush administration’s crackdown on illegal workers, with prosecutors bringing tough federal criminal charges against most of the immigrants arrested in a May 12 raid.

Previously, unauthorized workers have generally been detained by immigration officials for civil violations and rapidly deported.

The convicted immigrants were among 389 workers detained at the Agriprocessors plant in nearby Postville, in a raid federal officials called the largest criminal-enforcement operation carried out at a workplace.

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Claude Arnold, a special agent in charge of investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said it showed that federal officials were “committed to enforcing the nation’s immigration laws in the workplace.”

The unusually swift proceedings, in which 297 immigrants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in four days, were criticized by criminal-defense lawyers, who warned of violations of due process. The American Immigration Lawyers Association protested that the workers had been denied meetings with immigration lawyers and that their claims under immigration law had been swept aside in speedy plea agreements.

The illegal immigrants, most from Guatemala, filed into the courtrooms in groups of 10, their hands and feet shackled. One by one, they entered guilty pleas through a Spanish interpreter, admitting they had taken jobs using fraudulent Social Security cards or immigration documents.

The pleas were part of a deal worked out with prosecutors to avoid harsher charges. The immigrants agreed to deportation after they serve the five months in prison.

The hearings took place on the grounds of the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, in mobile trailers and in a dance hall modified with black curtains, beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing several nights until 10.

The large number of criminal cases was remarkable because immigration violations generally fall under civil statutes. Previously, relatively few immigrants caught in raids have been charged with federal crimes such as identity theft or document fraud.

Defense lawyers said most of the immigrants were ready to accept the plea deals because of the hard bargain driven by the prosecutors.

If the immigrants did not plead guilty, Matt Dummermuth, the U.S. attorney for Northern Iowa, said he would try them on felony identity-theft charges that carry a mandatory two-year minimum jail sentence.

In a related development, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Friday that agents had arrested 905 people in California on immigration violations during a three-week sting targeting people who ignored deportation orders. More than half of all arrested have been deported, an agency spokeswoman said.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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