Even those among us who take the hardest line on illegal immigration, those who genuinely wish they could snap their fingers and send everyone illegally within the borders of the U.S. back where they came from, probably wouldn't be so bold or blinded as to tell you that they believe undocumented immigrants have it easy. Many Hispanics in this country illegally wind up working the hard, dirty, sweaty, thankless jobs that nobody else wants to do — construction, landscaping, kitchen work, roofing, farm labor and the like — and often for wages that anyone with other options would laugh at. Pile on the fact that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) roundup or simple arrest could take away everything they've worked for in a hot second, and it's easy to start asking your self why they come here in the first place.
The answer, as many undocumented immigrants will tell you, is simple: It's much worse back home, with poverty that's nearly unbelievable to a person born and raised in America, and even with the trials and tribulations of living undocumented, this is still a land of opportunity for those willing to work hard.
Talking with undocumented immigrants and the people who work with them in Central Arkansas, though, there's a common refrain: be careful while driving in Saline County.
According to documents provided by the Saline County Sheriff's Office, at least 19 Hispanics, most of them stopped for simple traffic violations, were placed in what are called ICE holds at the Saline County Detention Center in 2011. An ICE hold allows law enforcement to detain persons who are suspected of being illegally in the country for an additional 48 hours (with the clock stopping on weekends and federal holidays) without bail, to give federal officials time to assess that person's immigration status and potentially take over custody.
Charges against those detained on ICE holds in Saline County in 2011 included driving while intoxicated (four), public intoxication (two), no driver's license, no seatbelt, making a U-turn, no insurance, and other misdemeanor traffic violations (10), first-degree battery (one), criminal impersonation second degree (one) and on a parole violation (one).
It is standard operating procedure for Benton police, Chief Kirk Lane told us, to contact ICE any time officers come into contact with someone they believe to be in this country illegally — a policy which sets the Benton PD apart from the Little Rock Police Department, for example, which generally doesn't contact ICE on minor offenses involving undocumented residents (or, as LRPD spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings has said: "We don't care about immigration, we don't enforce immigration.")
Lane said Benton police have no authority over what happens to the driver after that notification is made. If his department finds out that a person isn't in the country legally in the normal course of a traffic stop, "The only avenue we have is to contact ICE. We don't take that into our own authority unless they've violated some type of state law. We notify ICE and then they give us direction on how to handle that. They may say to release them. They may say they need to talk to them."
We were not able to determine the eventual fate of any of the people held in Saline County on ICE holds in 2011 by press time.
Some we spoke with say they were stopped by police on what they see as questionable probable cause and suggest that police in Saline County are using racial profiling to make their stops. In 2010, the Saline County community of Alexander was sued in federal court by five Latino plaintiffs for racial profiling of drivers and lost. Reggie Koch, the Little Rock attorney who won that judgment against Alexander for a group of five Latino plaintiffs, said he gets more complaints about Saline County stops than he does from the rest of the state combined.
Maria is an undocumented immigrant living in Saline County who is facing deportation after being stopped by a Bryant police officer last May. She asked that her last name not be used. Maria has lived in the United States for 12 years. She has three daughters, all born in America, and lives with her husband and children near the Saline County line.
Through an interpreter, Maria said she was on her way home from Benton, where she worked, on May 3, 2011 with her four-year-old daughter when she noticed a police car behind her. "He was behind me the whole time," she said, "but without putting any kind of signal on, no lights, no siren, no nothing."
Maria said the car followed her to her normal exit to go home. When she got off the freeway, the officer got off behind her, turned on his blue lights, and pulled her over. When the officer came to the window, she told him she had no license. The officer returned to his car, and Maria called her niece, believing that she and her daughter would have to have a ride home because she would be ticketed for not having a driver's license (DL) and then released.
"As soon as my niece got there, her being a young woman and very sassy, she asked the officer why he stopped me," Maria said. "He said: 'Because she was driving too slow on the freeway and she has a crack in her front windshield.' "
While Maria acknowledges her windshield was cracked, she contends there was no way the officer could have seen that until he walked up to her car during the stop. She also discounts the idea that she was driving too slow.
After telling her to step out of the car, the officer handcuffed her and placed her in the back of his patrol car.
"He said that I should have known clearly from the start that he was going to arrest me whether my niece showed up or not," Maria said.
Maria's niece took her daughter, and Maria was transported to the jail in Benton, where jail records show she was booked on the single charge of having no driver's license.
It was the first time she'd ever been in jail, Maria said. After waiting in a holding cell for several hours, she was given an orange jail jumpsuit and put in with other female prisoners. That was Tuesday. She didn't get out until Thursday morning, after visiting with an ICE agent, who asked if she had children living in the country. Once in ICE custody, she was transported to the Little Rock ICE office by van, where she was fingerprinted and photographed, then released on her own recognizance. ICE began the deportation process, which is ongoing. Maria's next court date is in August, but her attorney tells her she has a good chance at staying in the country, because she has been here over 10 years and has U.S.-born children.
In a way, Maria is lucky. We talked to one young undocumented man named Cesar Ramon De Jesus who was stopped just before Thanksgiving 2010 in the Saline County town of Shannon Hills and ticketed for speeding and no DL. After spending Thanksgiving in jail on an ICE hold he was turned over to Immigration, which transported him to Louisiana and told him he'd have to wait there two months for a court date. His relatives were eventually able to get together his $7,500 bond to get him out. Since then, he said, he has spent over $4,000 from savings he planned to use to return to Mexico in December 2010 on expenses associated with the case. Since he bonded out, he told us, his case has been postponed five times over the course of a year and a half, and was transferred from Louisiana to Memphis. After speaking with an attorney about his options, he finally requested voluntary removal from the country just so the relatives who put up his bond could get their money back. He has to present an Immigration-provided form bearing his fingerprints at a U.S. Embassy in Mexico before May 23 or he forfeits the bond. If he makes the deadline, he said, he has been told his relatives should get a refund of the bond money in four to six months.
Stories like De Jesus' are common in the undocumented community. Maria said she just thanks God she wasn't one of those who received a high bond. "I still get angry when I remember [the arrest], because of everything that happened," Maria said. "But I'm most angry for my daughters. They had to spend two nights without me. It was very painful to think about that, and of course my daughter who was with me, who saw me getting handcuffed and put in a patrol car." She has heard other undocumented immigrants who live in her neighborhood talk about people they know who have been stopped and arrested because they don't have a driver's license. Maria said she believes many of those stops were racially motivated.
"I understand and I'm willing to accept them issuing a ticket to me or anybody in my position, that doesn't have a driver's license," she said. "But the thing I just can't understand or accept is: why do they stop you without justification, and why do they very quickly get Immigration involved?"
Little Rock's Monterrey & Tellez Law Firm — where attorney Leo Monterrey works with his wife and fellow attorney Cristina Monterrey — represents Maria, and caters almost exclusively to Hispanic clients. Leo and Cristina Monterrey say they see a lot of cases out of Saline County where clients claim questionable probable cause.
"We do Pulaski, we do Faulkner, we do Saline and all the surrounding counties," Leo Monterrey said, "and we're getting calls every week to go represent someone who has got an ICE hold over there [in Saline County]. If it wasn't for that, I would tell you they're just like every other county, but for some reason, it doesn't happen in every other county."
The issues surrounding the federal ICE holds Monterrey speaks of are complex. Though local police officers aren't supposed to inquire about legal status during traffic stops, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 granted police agencies the authority to contact federal Immigration offices (then INS, though now known as ICE) on the suspicion they had an undocumented immigrant in their custody. An ICE hold — also known as an I-247 Detainer — was originally conceived to troll for convicted felons and undocumented immigrants involved in the drug trade, but has been widely used to detain and often deport those arrested for fairly minor offenses, drawing the ire of civil rights groups all over the country.
The backlash against ICE holds issued for those arrested on minor charges appears to be drawing their use in those cases to a close. In April, the Department of Homeland Security — responding to a scathing September 2011 Homeland Security Advisory Council report that said deportations for minor traffic offenses took resources away from the goal of deporting criminal aliens while driving wedges between local police and undocumented immigrant communities — announced that in cases where undocumented immigrants are arrested for traffic violations and don't have a prior criminal record, ICE will only place an immigration hold on drivers if or when they are convicted of their charges. Those arrested solely because of traffic issues like No DL or a broken taillight will no longer be held without bail for 48 hours for investigation and possible collection by ICE, hopefully with the inevitable result that fewer drivers stopped for speeding and no seat belt will head down the rabbit hole of deportation.
Under the current law, those detained solely on ICE holds are supposed to be released — or at least able to bond out on their original charges — after 48 hours. That doesn't always happen. Leo and Cristina Monterrey, for example, say that the longest they have seen a driver held on an ICE hold was an undocumented man who was arrested in Faulkner County and held without charges for 30 days, with jailers telling him the whole time that ICE would be there soon to pick him up.
Monterrey & Tellez partner Robert Tellez said that while things have gotten better at the Saline County Detention Center with regard to clients being improperly held on ICE holds for more than 48 hours, for the first 2½ years he worked at the firm he was heading to Saline County to help clients on that issue all the time. "We're getting fewer calls out there for the 48 hours," he said. "But, you know, we've fought a lot of battles. Leo and I were out there constantly. I don't know it if was the work we did, or if there's been a policy change from Washington."
Tellez said that in the last few months, they've noticed ICE putting fewer suspected undocumented immigrants into deportation proceedings, or releasing them on "own recognizance" bonds. "That has been an administration change, I think," Tellez said, "because we're getting close to the election. There has been a change on that front."
Reggie Koch, the Little Rock attorney who successfully sued on behalf of Hispanic drivers who were being illegally profiled in Alexander in 2010, has heard his clients complain about ongoing issues in Saline County as well. "I don't think they learned anything from [the Alexander lawsuit]," he said. "Bryant, Bauxite, Alexander and Saline County — I get more complaints against those agencies than the whole rest of the state. No exaggeration."
Koch said that while some of the issues he sees regarding undocumented drivers and questionable stops undoubtedly stem from bad training, he said he believes more of them come from the fact that, in Arkansas and most of the country, cracking down on undocumented immigrants is an issue that can always fire up the conservative electorate.
"If you want to make a lot of noise, and have a lot of people root for you and support you," he said, "if you go out against this undocumented influx of people, you will have a huge following. It's just low-hanging political fruit."
Koch said he wouldn't even want to guess how much money local governments in Saline County are making from stops involving illegal immigrants. As pointed out in the Department of Homeland Security advisory committee report referenced above, aggressive enforcement puts up walls between the police and undocumented people in the community.
"The majority of [undocumented immigrants] are going to get a ticket, go pay it in cash, and just walk away," he said. "They want to be done. They live a life like a fugitive. They're afraid to report crimes. If they're the victim of a crime, they generally won't report it, because they're afraid they'll be deported."
Like Koch, Little Rock attorney Guillermo Hernandez said that most of the no driver's license charges after stops made on questionable probable cause come out of Saline County. "You might not believe one or two persons who come to me and tell me, 'Well, I wasn't really veering out of my lane,' " he said. "But when it's all of them, that tells you that they're using that as an excuse at some point. Of course, this is unverified ... it's hard to prove." Hernandez said that in most of the stops he's dealt with in Little Rock, if the driver has insurance, registration and some form of ID, officers usually write them a ticket and send the driver on their way.
"The difference is that in Saline County, if you don't have a license ... they arrest you for not having an ID — which is a valid reason," Hernandez said.
When we spoke to her at her home near the Saline/Pulaski County Line in April, Maria — the driver stopped last May and placed in federal deportation proceedings — was still angry, and still afraid. She doesn't like to go out much these days, she said.
"I've gotten a little scared of going out because of what happened," she said. "How do I know if I'm going to come back? How do I know if they're going to stop me and take me to jail?" She's even more worried for her husband, who has to drive to get to work. If her husband were to get arrested and put into deportation proceedings on the way to or from work, a high bond and the loss of his ability to work could devastate their family.
If she could legally get a license, Maria said, she would get one immediately. She doesn't want to break the law, but — like most undocumented people — she literally has no other choice if she wants to drive. She said Leo Monterrey is working with her to try and get some kind of permit so she can eventually get her license, but that's in the future, and there's still her Immigration hearing in August to attend to. Her attorneys are being encouraging about her prospects, but she's clearly worried.
As we spoke, the school bus came and went, discharging a flood of Hispanic kids with their sweaters and backpacks into the trailer park. Maria's daughters tromped in from school — American girls, born and raised here. Time and love, if nothing else, will assure that things can't always be this way for Hispanics in Saline County.
"Maybe we're in the wrong," Maria said. "If we don't have licenses, it's because we can't get any. And maybe that's a mistake on our part. But we're only here because we wanted a better life for ourselves and our children. That's the only reason we're here."
NOTE: After press time on the print edition, Lt. Scott Courtney with the Saline County Sheriff's Office called us back in response to a question about whether there was a printed ICE hold for Maria, the woman stopped in 2011 with her daughter and later placed in Immigration custody. Maria's name does not appear in the 19 printed ICE holds provided to Arkansas Times after an FOI request to the Saline County Sheriff's Office.
After searching jail records during that call, Courtney was able to find the ICE hold for Maria, along with another ICE hold for a Hispanic man which was also not included in the 19 documents provided to the Times. Courtney said the omission of these documents while fulfilling our original FOI request was an error. The existence of these documents suggests that the true number of ICE holds placed on Hispanics held in the Saline County Detention Center in 2011 could potentially be much higher than the 19 we previously reported.
We will file yet another FOI request for all Immigration holds placed on SCSO inmates in 2011, and will report when we receive them.