Federal immigration authorities arrested at least 12 people for being in the country illegally early Saturday during a state-led, alcohol-related investigation of a Little Rock nightclub, officials said.
Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control, which conducted a compliance check at Club Trois based on tips, requested assistance from Homeland Security Investigations because of the nature of some of the complaints, state agency spokesman Scott Hardin said.
Ten of the people arrested had no serious criminal history, according to an attorney who spoke Monday with a top official at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Little Rock. The other two had prior violations, said the attorney, Juan Carlos Hernandez, who is not representing anyone involved.
Early reports sparked fear that immigration enforcement agents independently raided the nightclub, highlighting sensitivities about tighter enforcement policies under President Donald Trump's administration. Arkansas, generally, has been spared the random, wide-ranging crackdowns at workplaces or community hangouts seen in other states, Hernandez said.
But important details of the Club Trois arrests remained unclear, such as why federal agents were asked to help state investigators, how many people were initially detained and whether everyone in attendance was asked to prove their residency status.
Questions linger about whether the operation was essentially a "broad sweep" of a Hispanic club, an advocate for migrants said.
Hernandez and a public affairs officer at the Mexican Consulate in Little Rock stressed that the operation did not seem to be an "arbitrary operation."
"I think that's important [to understand] so the people won't panic," said Hernandez, an attorney at Hernandez Law Firm. "People in general are just getting really anxious and really nervous. Some of them are getting into, like, a panic mode."
Asking immigration agents for help on an alcohol investigation is rare, Hardin said. Homeland Security Investigations is a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- which is often called by its acronym, ICE -- and is separate from the day-to-day enforcement division.
"Without getting too specific, some of the complaints we were receiving, we knew we could potentially have a situation in which Homeland Security was needed," Hardin said. "It was in preparation for what we heard."
Hardin declined to elaborate, other than saying that the allegation was "outside our jurisdiction" and that he didn't believe Homeland Security was investigating Club Trois before the tip.
Agency staff members are writing a violation for serving alcohol to a minor, Hardin said. Additionally, one of the patrons was ticketed with possession of marijuana, he said.
Bryan Cox, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, confirmed 12 arrests. He declined to provide specific criminal backgrounds of the people who were detained, citing privacy rules.
"I can tell you there is an ongoing federal investigation," Cox said. "There have been no criminal charges filed at this point. I'm not able to discuss the specific circumstances about any federal investigation."
The Homeland Security Investigations division probes an array of potential crimes, ranging from immigration document fraud to financial crimes to human-rights violations.
"Although [the division] is not immigration enforcement, being part of ICE, they're not going to turn a blind eye to that," Cox said.
Residing in the United States without lawful status is, by itself, a civil offense of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act. Violators face deportation but not criminal charges, unless they have committed a crime. It is not a crime, for example, to overstay a visa.
Sarah Medrano, a public affairs officer at the Mexican Consulate in Little Rock, said 10 of the 12 people who have been detained are Mexican nationals and are being temporarily held at the Lonoke city jail. She was not sure of their criminal histories. The other two people detained are from Honduras and Guatemala, Medrano said.
All 12 will be transferred to an immigration facility in Jena, La., Medrano said.
"When we spoke to ICE authorities, they only told us that they had this investigation on this particular establishment, but it wasn't an arbitrary operation for immigration or [support for] a rumor that was going on that this was going to happen in other places," Medrano said.
As many as 30 people were initially detained early Saturday morning, but most were released at the club "because [agents] did not have any reason to detain them," Medrano said.
Boyce Hamlet, director of the Alcoholic Beverage Controls Enforcement Division, said in a printed statement that no family lost its breadwinner.
"ABC has several controls in place, both at the state and federal level to ensure no primary caregiver was removed from their family or that any minor children were placed in danger," Hamlet said. "The individuals ICE detained to evaluate their citizenship either had active warrants for their arrest or multiple incidents of being removed from the United States."
Hernandez was unsure of the specific backgrounds of the 12 people arrested, but he said that 10 didn't have a serious criminal history, meaning nothing higher than a Class C misdemeanor, according to his conversation with the sub-director of the Little Rock immigration enforcement office. Public intoxication is one example of such a crime.
The nightclub, with a facade reading Trois Club Latino, was cited in June for disorderly conduct on site, allowing alcohol consumption after legally prescribed hours and operating under an unauthorized trade name, according to documents Hardin provided.
Tracy Johnson, listed as the permit holder, contested the violations, Hardin said. A hearing is scheduled for Alcoholic Beverage Control's Aug. 15 board meeting.
Johnson had not returned a message as of Monday evening.
Mireya Reith, executive director of the immigrants rights advocacy group Arkansas United Community Coalition, said the club's manager and his wife, who are Hispanic, were among those detained Saturday morning.
Arkansas United received witness reports stating the club's exits were barricaded and everyone was forced to prove legal residency, she said, calling it a "broad sweep."
"Even if it wasn't what would be qualified as a raid, the broad sweep is essentially equivalent to a raid," Reith said, adding that the operation approaches the "realm of people being targeted because of their race."
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said he was unaware of the investigation. As the city tries to "build trust with all of our residents," it would have been nice to be notified, he said. A key question, the mayor said, is what prompted alcohol regulators to seek help from Homeland Security.
"It seems to me the root of the issue is probably at that juncture, on why the state agency decided they needed to call in [Homeland Security] Investigations," Stodola said. "While this may be a legitimate operation, the lack of information to the community has caused great concern to everyone and certainly the Little Rock family."
Metro on 07/24/2018
Print Headline: Immigration agents arrest dozen people at Little Rock club