Fifteen people who aren't suspected of other criminal activity were arrested on immigration charges during the course of a statewide Drug Enforcement Administration-led drug sweep this week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's regional spokesman Bryan Cox said Friday.
The individuals were not criminal targets but were detained when they were "encountered" over the course of Operation Task Force Arkansas, Cox said.
Of those 15 individuals, 11 have no criminal record known to immigration authorities, two had prior criminal convictions and two were "illegal re-entrants," Cox said, meaning they previously had been deported and re-entered the country. Cox did not immediately have a breakdown of nationalities of those detained or the circumstances of their arrests.
Officials declined to comment on individual cases during a news conference held Friday in Little Rock, which was attended by representatives of federal and local law enforcement agencies. Officials said information about the location of immigration-related arrests was not yet available.
Officials spoke in general terms about the incorporation of immigration authorities with the drug investigation, which commenced in July and came to a head this week, resulting in 1,260 total arrests and the seizure of narcotics and 211 firearms.
"[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is a federal law enforcement partner, just like the FBI, the DEA and the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]," Eastern District U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland said. "Illegal immigration is inextricably tied to drug trafficking and human trafficking. When we have operations like this, if there are illegal acts that have been committed, [individuals] will be held accountable."
Immigration authorities assisted the DEA primarily through its Homeland Security Investigations arm, which investigates crimes such as drug smuggling and trafficking, Cox said. But immigration arrests sometimes are made over the course of a criminal investigation.
"If we encounter unlawfully present foreign nationals, we're not going to turn a blind eye to that," he said.
Mireya Reith, executive director of immigrant advocate group Arkansas United Community Coalition, said the group began hearing reports of a number of immigration arrests -- particularly in Batesville -- from Jonesboro-area organizers earlier in the week.
Reith said in telephone interviews that the group was still trying to clarify exactly what had happened in Batesville, and described an atmosphere of growing concern about enforcement in immigrant communities across the state.
"[There's been] absolute panic, to the point that individuals are afraid to even share their stories to anyone else besides us," she said. "[We hear about] individuals describing not leaving their house, not letting their kids go to school out of fear."
Reached for comment Thursday, Batesville Mayor Rick Elumbaugh said he didn't yet know enough about the investigation to make a statement but that he had been informed federal immigration authorities would be in town.
Cox did not know specifically where the 15 individuals were being detained, but said people arrested on immigration offenses in Arkansas generally are transported to detention facilities in Louisiana. They also can be located by name on a page on the Department of Homeland Security's website: locator.ice.gov.
The Lonoke Police Department -- which Police Chief Randy Mauk said serves as a temporary holding facility for immigration authorities in central Arkansas -- had 19 people in custody on immigration offenses Friday morning. They had arrived Tuesday and Wednesday, though Mauk did not have details on whether they were being held in connection with this investigation.
The latest immigration arrests follow an incident last week in Alma in which 28 people were detained by immigration authorities during the course of an undisclosed criminal investigation at the Bryant Preserving Co. food processing plant.
In July, a dozen people were charged with immigration offenses during an Alcoholic Beverage Control raid meant to target suspected human trafficking at a Hispanic nightclub.
Arkansas United has charted an uptick in reports about Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity in the state since May of this year -- the most it has heard since 2010-2011, Reith said.
Cox disputed the notion of stepped-up enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the state, which is policed by several hundred immigration agents who work in a five-state region that comprises Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
"This is what this agency does every day. ... Any question as to whether there is a particular focus on Arkansas, as opposed to elsewhere, is not accurate," he said.
Reith said she planned to travel to Batesville over the weekend to learn more about the arrests. She said there are plans to have an Arkansas United staff attorney work with the affected families and to host a "know your rights" forum in the area.
Immigrants with legal status should always carry their documents, such as a green card, with them, University of Arkansas School of Law Immigration Clinic Director Beth Zilberman said.
She also noted that people who have been arrested on immigration offenses do have some rights. They have a right to an attorney, though an attorney does not have to be provided for them. They also have the same property rights as citizens, in that immigration authorities are not empowered to enter their home without invitation or a warrant.
Reith said apprehensions about enforcement aren't limited to people without legal immigration status. She said many people were alarmed by the high priority the White House has placed on immigration policy, adding that even those who are "just going about daily routines, being Hispanic in Arkansas" have felt as though they may be at risk of being targeted.
"It is creating chaos and havoc, and we're gravely concerned," she said. "At this time, our community is very hesitant to do anything with law enforcement anywhere."
Metro on 09/22/2018
Print Headline: 15 migrants arrested secondary to sweep