The 11 Latino men – half in blue jail jumpsuits, half in orange – all had their hands cuffed behind their backs as they were led into the federal courtroom last Friday. They looked like criminals instead of what they were two weeks before: waiters, janitors, cooks, dishwashers and groundskeepers at the Country Club of Little Rock.
Seated in the jury box, rubbing their wrists where the cuffs had been, the 11 men didn’t look scared. Maybe it was just the strength men can draw from the fear of looking weak in front of other men, or because — after two weeks in the county lockup — anything was preferable. Maybe it was because they already knew what it is to do something that might lead to jail: to swim rivers and cross borders in the middle of the night; to lie flat on the ground under the stars while a searchlight crawls over your back.
A few hours before the hearing, I talked to U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins. He said that there will be more arrests in the future, and that his office will soon “put employers on notice” about checking workers’ credentials and verifying identity. “We’re going to try and help businesses get on the ball,” he said. “But at some point, we’re going to start prosecuting some business owners.”
Cummins said that the Country Club of Little Rock case isn’t a great example of how and why employers usually hire illegal immigrants. The club, which has declined to discuss the case, paid “above market” wages and benefits, he said, and was very cooperative with the investigation. “While they had not done everything they could on the front end, they quickly caught up and were happy to do so,” he said. “It wasn’t a situation where an entity was willfully trying to attract [illegals] to save money.”
Short of building a wall on the border, Cummins said, workplace enforcement is the best deterrent to illegal immigration. “If it becomes apparent to employers that they’re going to have to spend the time and money to get it right, that’s going to wean a lot of these people off payrolls.”
Sheila Gomez, director of Catholic Charities of Arkansas, said that behind the men arrested, there are at least 52 family members. This number includes 27 children, ranging from infants to high schoolers. Many of the children were born in America. With the main breadwinner in their households gone, these families found themselves hanging on the outcome of the hearing. Gomez said that the charity has been providing humanitarian assistance to them since the arrests; helping them pay for food and bills through a fund set up in their name.
Gomez said that current immigration law is an “inhumane situation,” adding that arrests like the ones made at the country club have a ripple effect in the community. “The result of this is many families being torn apart,” Gomez said. “I see that this really calls out for comprehensive immigration reform. Immigration law is so complex that it’s hard for people to get a grasp of the reality of what people face. It’s not simple, and the system is not working.”
At the hearing, after U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes came in — and other than the laborious process of swearing in each defendant one by one and having them plead guilty one by one, each to a single felony count of fraudulent use of a Social Security number (part of a plea deal designed to get them the minimum allowable punishment) — it was over relatively quickly. The 11 were sentenced to time served, plus three years of supervised release. If they cross the border again during that time, they can be sent to prison.
After court was adjourned, they were handcuffed again and filed out to begin the deportation process through an Oklahoma processing center. Guillermo Hernandez was in the audience that day, a young lawyer with the Little Rock law firm of Catlett and Stodola, retained to give advice to Little Rock’s Mexican consulate. Was justice done, I asked him.
“If you look at it from the law’s point of view, yes, justice was done,” Hernandez said. “Because that’s the law. There was no way of defending them. They were using Social Security numbers that were not theirs.” Arkansas, Hernandez said, is a state where employers are only responsible for making the effort to ask potential employees for documents that prove they are legal to work. Still, he said the best way to curb illegal immigration would be to start punishing the employers. “A wall’s not going to do anything,” he said. “These people obviously come to this country because there are better job opportunities. As long as there are employers willing to hire them and pay sub-minimum wages, they’ll keep coming.”
In the hallway, I caught up with an older Latino couple who had been sitting in the back of the courtroom — him walking slowly, knees bent like they were full of broken glass and misery. It turned out that they were the parents of Mario Mata, one of the young men just marched from the courtroom in cuffs. Arturo Mata is Mario’s father. His eyes were red, and his grasp of English was basic. We struggled over the words.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to my son,” he said. “His wife and little son [are] waiting, see if he goes to Mexico.” He smiled. I asked him what Mario’s wife plans to do if her husband is deported. He smiled again and shrugged.
“I’ll go take her there, my son’s wife, to Mexico,” Arturo Mata said. “His family — that’s why he come to stay over here.”
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