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.