MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All right, let's stay with the workplace raids and bring in Joyce White Vance. She is now a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law. She used to be a U.S. attorney in Alabama. And in an op-ed for The Washington Post, she writes that early in her tenure in that job under the Obama administration, she was approached about conducting an ICE raid similar to the ones last week in Mississippi. Well, that raid never happened, and we wanted to find out why.
Joyce White Vance, welcome.
JOYCE WHITE VANCE: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Who approached you, and what were they asking for?
WHITE VANCE: There were some plants in northeast Alabama - chicken, poultry plants, much like the factories in Mississippi that were raided last week. And the idea was agents would surge in that area and, essentially, see what they came up with.
KELLY: And why did you conclude this would not be a good thing to do?
WHITE VANCE: So it's very difficult as a prosecutor to decide how best to use your resources. And you have to find a way of doing the cases that will matter the most in your community. And in my judgment, going after people who even if they lacked legal status weren't causing other problems was not as good of a use of our resources as it would be to go after either the employers or violent people who are in the country.
KELLY: So resources are finite, and a U.S. attorney who is busy focusing on raiding a poultry plant is not going to be able to devote their time and resources to, say, prosecuting violent crimes or other things going on in the community.
WHITE VANCE: U.S. attorneys have to make choices like everyone else. The question is what you're leaving on the table. Is that public corruption? Is that terrorism? Is that civil rights? Is that drug trafficking? There are trade-offs that have to be made.
KELLY: You said you thought it would be worth - more worth focusing on the employers at these poultry plants, not the employees. Explain.
WHITE VANCE: So one of the things you think about as a federal prosecutor is prosecuting the most culpable people. And let me give you an easy-to-understand example. If you're looking at an organization that traffics drugs, it's a lot less helpful for the community if you're prosecuting mules who are driving drugs across the country but who don't really run the organization.
KELLY: So in the case of these poultry plants, what was it that you might have thought would be interesting about going after the employers?
WHITE VANCE: It certainly would be worthwhile to prosecute the people that are running these organizations. You know, people who lack legal immigration status are being employed. The employers themselves would have to turn a real blind eye to the situation to not know that. It is difficult to prove knowledge, and that's one of the things that you have to prove in court. Nonetheless, that's where prosecutors should focus - on the people who own the companies and who are benefiting the most.
KELLY: What is your response to people who argue, look; if someone has entered the U.S. illegally, U.S. officials, such as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, have a responsibility to uphold the rule of law, to charge people who have broken U.S. law?
WHITE VANCE: You know, we don't prosecute everyone who commits a crime in this country. We don't prosecute all drug transactions. We don't prosecute all thefts. So it's a little bit unusual, I think, to try to single out immigration and say we should prosecute every single violator. What we should do is focus on the crimes in each legal category that are the most significant.
KELLY: So what went through your mind as you watched these raids unfold in Mississippi last week?
WHITE VANCE: I think that the timing made them difficult to watch. We had just seen the largest mass murder ever targeting Hispanics in the United States. And so that...
KELLY: In El Paso.
WHITE VANCE: ...Entire context - right, from El Paso - I think, drove the reactions that many people had to seeing these children in Mississippi left parentless, even if it was temporary. It was, I think, not consistent with our sense of how law enforcement should operate in this country.
KELLY: You're arguing, if I hear you right, that there is some room for empathy in the decisions that prosecutors make about what to prosecute and when to do so.
WHITE VANCE: Prosecutors should be human beings. That doesn't mean that they shouldn't follow the law. The oath that prosecutors take is to the Constitution. But nothing says that you stop being a human being just because you become a U.S. attorney.
KELLY: That is Joyce White Vance, former federal prosecutor in Alabama.
Thanks for your time.
WHITE VANCE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAREPUSHER'S "TOMMIB HELP BUSS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.