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Program disproportionately targets Marshallese communities, advocates worry for future

Out of the 187 entries and names that are proposed to be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the Washington County Detention Center, 109 of the names were of Marshallese descent.
Rachell Sanchez-Smith
Out of the 187 entries and names that are proposed to be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the Washington County Detention Center, 109 of the names were of Marshallese descent.

Marshallese communities in Northwest Arkansas continue to face challenges stemming from immigration policies and enforcement programs that are disproportionately targeting them. The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, known as SCAAP, has sounded alarms for local advocates that say the partnership puts communities more at-risk for deportation.

Data from the program shows that Marshallese communities are overrepresented, making up almost 60 percent of the names on the list that are then shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Beth Coger, Washington County Quorum Court Justice of the Peace for District 9, says that the grant incentivizes the jails to hold undocumented individuals, and even, people whom they suspect of being undocumented.

“We’re getting $117,000 this year. The jail maintenance and budget for 2022 is $19 million dollars, [SCAAP] comes out to 0.00671 percent of the total jail. That’s nothing, that’s for SCAAP,” Coger said.

“They call it reimbursement, I don't call it reimbursement, I call it a token payment on a large debt, $170,000 compared to $19.1 million. Look at the harm it does, because it breaks apart families, it causes fear just to know that it’s there. I know the immigrant community lives in fear,” she added.

There are also concerns that Marshallese community members are being unfairly targeted, despite their unique status.

“One of the requirements of SCAP is that you enter the country illegally. Marshallese do not enter the country illegally. They come here with a passport and when they get here they get a visa and we have the compact, because of all the nuclear damage we did to the Marshall Islands in the late 40s and 50s,” Coger said.

The Compact of Free Association was recently renewed last October which allows Marshall Islanders to enter the U.S. legally, because of the nuclear legacy between the countries. Up until 1958, the U.S. nuclear testing program devastated the Marshall Islands with firepower equivalent to 7,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Stephanie Takamaru, from the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, says her office has been flooded with calls from families trying to find their loved ones.

“How am I supposed to get this inmate to reach out to their loved ones, they didn’t know that they were picked up,” she said. “There's no communication, I've seen clients that have been detained for three months and they have not been able to reach loved ones.”

The language barrier adds another layer of complexity to an already daunting situation.

“Oh there’s a huge language barrier, I mean I’m calling the ICE detentions and trying to locate these loved ones. Once I locate them, I’m sitting here going ‘how do I get this individual that is in your custody right now, I see them online, it verifies that they are there.’ How am I supposed to get that family member to reach out to loved ones to let them know they are doing okay, if there is any stuff that they are needing while they are incarcerated,” Takamaru said.

SCAAP shares information of people who are undocumented, have committed one felony or two misdemeanors, and have been in detention for more than four days. SCAAP also shares information like people’s names, birth countries, home and work addresses.

Washington County Sheriff Jay Cantrell alleges that the program is just a grant and helps reimburse the jail’s expensive operating budget.

“Operating the county jail In Washington County is the most expensive thing we do. It's about $25 million this year to operate the county jail. If we have a chance to recoup some of those costs even, $100,000, $117,000 [which] doesn't seem very much compared to 25 million. But if it's out there, it requires very little effort for us to get it, and then we buy detainee uniforms with it, we buy mattresses” he said.

The sheriff seemed surprised at the high number of Marshallese people on the list, citing local police departments that feed into the jail:

“I find that interesting, that there were that many marshallese, I haven’t looked at the right breakdown of the race on the ones we submitted,” Cantrell said. “That seems high, but I don't really know. I do know that, the Washington County Sheriff's Office and the Washington County Jail. We're probably not involved in very many of those arrests.”

Local leaders like Justice of the Peace Beth Coger are calling for open communication to address concerns about deportations and build stronger bonds of trust between undocumented communities and law enforcement.

“I have never argued that charges shouldn't be violated, that someone shouldn't be prosecuted if they break the law. I've never said that. But I will always say that everyone deserves the same treatment in our justice system. If we're not making darn sure that happens, then we're not doing our job. Not only [are we] not doing our job, we're negligent.” Coger said.

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Rachell-Sanchez Smith is an associate producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>
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