A 22-year-old Salvadoran woman living in Arkansas has been jailed since July and now faces the possibility of deportation after she called Springdale police to report domestic violence.
Roxana Menjivar's conviction for a misdemeanor, nonviolent crime spiraled into prolonged detention while she navigated the interplay between state and immigration laws, an experience that underscores the hesitancy in calling law enforcement felt by people who live in the country illegally.
"It's an unfortunate case, don't get me wrong," her immigration attorney Kedron Benham said. "[But] this goes on all the time."
The full scope of heightened immigration enforcement in Arkansas -- including the backgrounds of individuals who are detained -- has been difficult to determine because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has blocked a 9-month-long effort to obtain its arrest records through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette learned of Menjivar's case while reviewing Sebastian County jail booking records as part of an effort to track how immigration law enforcement under President Donald Trump has changed in Arkansas. An estimated 56,000 foreign-born people illegally reside in the state, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.
Sebastian County's jail, in Fort Smith, contracts with the immigration agency to hold some immigration detainees before they are transferred to a federal facility. The number of people held there for immigration reasons more than doubled in the first nine months of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016, according to jail records.
At stake for Menjivar, who has lived in the U.S. for 11 years and has an American son, is her forced return to El Salvador -- where gang-related activity, including violence and extortion -- is "widespread," according to a standing U.S. State Department travel warning.
"It's cases like this that make our immigrant families not want to participate in community policing, whether it's domestic violence or reporting other kinds of crime," said Mireya Reith, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Arkansas United Community Coalition. "We find underreporting so much in our communities in these cases. Communication around this spreads. The community shares this news among each other."
Menjivar is detained at a privately run immigration jail in Jena, La., where she is scheduled for a bond hearing at 9 a.m. Monday. An attempt to coordinate a telephone interview with her was unsuccessful.
Her arrest July 17 by Springdale police came after an officer concluded that she was the aggressor in a domestic dispute with her husband, which she reported and which stemmed from an argument over custody of their toddler son, according to the police report.
The officer charged her with domestic battery -- which prosecutors did not pursue -- as well as forgery, a felony, when he discovered counterfeit documents in her possession during the arrest, according to his report. Menjivar said she never used the documents, a Social Security card and legal resident ID card in her name.
Menjivar was first booked into the Washington County jail and remained there until she pleaded guilty Oct. 18 to the misdemeanor charge of possession of an instrument of crime. She received a one-year suspended prison sentence, according to court records.
Immigration enforcement officers had learned of the Springdale arrest, asked the Washington County jail to hold Menjivar for them and assumed custody of her after the state case concluded.
She previously declined to post $2,500 bail for her release from the county jail because the immigration "detainer" would have meant she'd be subsequently arrested and jailed in Louisiana -- seven hours away from Springdale, her attorney said. Also, her immigration case would have then begun while an unresolved felony charge remained on her record, Benham said.
After her plea, Menjivar spent two nights in the Sebastian County jail before she was transferred to the Louisiana lockup.
Sebastian County records obtained through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act show that that jail temporarily held 298 prisoners on immigration charges through September of this year, up from the 140 it held in the first nine months of 2016. The jail held a total of 190 immigration prisoners throughout all of 2016.
Trump's administration in September said immigration-related arrests were up by more than 40 percent nationally this year compared with the same time in 2016, The Washington Post reported.
Trump made immigration law enforcement a hallmark of his campaign and swiftly moved to eliminate a priority-based enforcement system that sometimes overlooked immigration violations by people who had been in the country for a long time without committing a crime.
"Would the outcome have been different [with prosecutorial discretion]? We don't know," Reith said. "But there would have been the option to investigate, to look into the extenuating circumstances" before filing the immigration charge.
The national immigration judicial backlog swelled by 113,000 cases during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 to more than 629,000, according to immigration researchers with the Transactional Research Access Center at Syracuse University in New York.
Menjivar, since her Washington County guilty plea, spent roughly three weeks in federal custody before her case was put in the court's docket, a necessary step before she could request a bond hearing, Benham said. That delay, while typical, stems from the backlog, he said.
The LaSalle lockup, where Menjivar is held, is considered one of the system's "surge courts," where judges from other jurisdictions have been enlisted to handle cases -- either in person or remotely -- as part of a Trump initiative.
Of 21 surge courts, LaSalle in Jena ranks first in the number of completed cases, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Justice office that oversees the immigration judicial system.
After calling police in July, Menjivar told the responding officer that her husband, Cesar Santos, broke her cellphone and shoved her into a wall when she threatened to call law enforcement during an early morning dispute, according to the arrest report.
She arrived at Santos' home at 2 a.m. to get their son and take him to her friend's house, where she was sleeping while she and her husband were separated, she said.
Santos, who had a small cut on his lip and marks on his neck, told police that he broke Menjivar's phone, according to the report. She then tore his pants pocket and struck him in the face with a sandal, he said.
Menjivar told the officer that she left the house with her son and drove to the Springdale Police Department. She did not see an officer, so she left. Menjivar later called police from a friend's house, about two hours after the dispute, according to the offense report.
The officer arrested Menjivar, charging her with misdemeanor domestic battery after reviewing the injuries and text messages, according to the report. The officer cited Santos -- but did not arrest him -- for breaking her cellphone.
Speaking generally, Springdale Police Department spokesman Lt. Jeff Taylor said it is "not unlikely" for officers to determine that the person who made the original complaint was the offender. Taylor said he wasn't familiar with Menjivar, specifically.
"Obviously, just because they call us does not give them a get-out-of-jail-free card, where they don't go to jail if they commit a crime," Taylor said.
Taylor also said officers do not inquire about a person's legal status or alert federal immigration authorities to people they suspect are in the country illegally.
"We're not enforcing any immigration laws," he said. "We go out and enforce the laws of the state. What the federal government does as far as screening people in the jail, that's up to them."
Menjivar entered the U.S. in 2006, when she was either 10 or 11 years old, according to her attorney. "Her parents led her here," Benham said. She worked at a restaurant at the time of her arrest.
Menjivar, who does not appear to have a previous criminal history, arrived about five years too late to qualify for temporary protected status offered to Salvadoran immigrants after a series of 2001 earthquakes in their home country.
She met the age and time-of-entry requirements for Deferred Status for Childhood Arrivals, but never received that designation. Benham said he does not know whether she applied.
Deferred action, while not a "legal status," grants recipients a reprieve from deportation and access to documents -- such as a temporary Social Security card -- that allow them to legally drive and work in the U.S.
By the time of Menjivar's scheduled immigration bond hearing Monday, she will have spent 26 nights in federal custody, on top of the 92 nights she spent in the Washington County jail.
"Enough time," she wrote on her October guilty plea questionnaire, in response to a prompt about how long she discussed the plea with her attorney.
A Section on 11/12/2017
Print Headline: Call to police results in 4 months in jails