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Marshallese community reacts after Washington County passes SCAAP

Rachell Sanchez-Smith
Marshallese families protest outside of the Washington County Quorum Courthouse against SCAAP on Feb. 15. Out of the 187 names Washington County will submit for the grant, 109 were of Marshallese descent.

At the Quorum Courthouse in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Serene Balkain, a Marshallese middle schooler from Springdale, spoke in front of a room of 40 to 50 adults peering over her shoulder. Watching silently, the 13 Justices of the Peace sat in a semi-circle in front of her; Serene adjusted the bulky white seat and told the justices that her dad was taken last month.

"Great. Ms. Serene, will you come closer to that mic so we can make sure and hear you," Judge Deakins said.

"Thank you, and I am here today because my dad was taken on January 1; there were people that came and took my dad, and I did not know what really happened. My siblings and my mom have been struggling because my dad was not here to be by our side and protect us," she said.

Serene, wiping away tears, told the court, "I just want to say that I want my dad back and … the last time I saw my dad was last year, and I just really miss him, and that's all."

Serene, joined by many other members of the Marshallese community who were speaking out against SCAAP, or the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, and the recent deportations of over 20 Marshallese men last month. SCAAP is a voluntary program that pays county jails in exchange for information about undocumented people.

People qualify if they have been convicted of one felony or two misdemeanors and have four days in jail. Those names are sent to the federal government and Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

Carolina Edwin, who works with the Marshall Islands Consulate, tells the court why she believes the Marshallese are unfairly targeted. She said that SCAAP is like a "fishing net" that takes everyone, all the fishes in its net, and it "doesn't care who it takes."

"You are taking fathers who have served their times. Sons who are taking care of their elders that we brought back from the Marshalls because they are sick. You are taking sons and daughters that have changed their lives. We are not asking you to release criminals or people that have [committed] crimes. We are just asking that you do not participate in the SCAAP program because we are not illegals," she said.

Léo Tucker, Founding Director and Lead Attorney for Arkansas Immigrant Defense, said that because of a treaty called the Compacts of Free Association, the Marshallese can live in the U.S. legally. They have a special legal status, unlike most immigrants.

"They don't have to go to the embassy or the U.S. Consulate in their home country before they come; they can just come legally through this compact. It's a huge, huge gift most of the world does not have," Tucker adds.

Tucker said even lawful residents get some protection from deportation, but depending on the crime they have been charged with, they can still be deported.

"There's a complex area of immigration law called 'crimmigration'. It's when you're here, and you're not a U.S. citizen, and different crimes can create different complications for people," Tucker said.

Tucker said that ICE can attempt to deport people anytime, anywhere, and even if someone is suspected of being undocumented.

"So they'll be maybe picked up at their homes, maybe at their jobs, maybe, you know, abiding by the law going to their probation officer to check in, and there will be a few ICE agents there and possibly take them to the jail."

The compact was set up after the legacy of nuclear damage from the U.S. on the islands in the forties and fifties. These nuclear tests were, in some cases, about 1000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

Stephanie Takamaru, from the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, said the nuclear legacy "that we've held in our islands in the Marshall Islands is still there when you talk about being milked and tested with atomic bombs, and we were guinea pigs. I mean, that's already going to be given. It's sad because you've had kids who moved here when they were one year old. They're still considered COFA citizens. They've grown up here."

Of the 187 names Washington County will submit for the grant, 109 were of Marshallese descent. That's about 60 percent of the names sent to ICE.

Advocates claim the program incentivizes ICE to detain individuals, where the nearest holding facility is almost seven hours away in Louisiana. If deportation occurs, the petitioner is barred from entering the U.S. for at least 10 years, and the deportation order will remain on their permanent record.

"You're splitting up a lot of family members. The majority of the detainees were male. So what's going on is you have many of our typical mothers and wives [who] stay home to take care of the household needs and the children while the man brings the bread. What's happening is when you take the whole entire sole provider of that household,” Takamaru said.

For now, her advice to the many fearful community members is to brace themselves, "just in case, now that SCAAP has passed, two misdemeanor charges you might get picked up for, just be careful. If you plead guilty for jaywalking. If you plead guilty for minor stuff for misdemeanors. I mean, we see people jaywalking if they plead guilty, is this where the Sheriff's going to share the information again? So it's just very unnerving right now with our people."

Supporters of the program say that the county jail should get reimbursed for its expenses. Washington County Sheriff Jay Cantrell said the county will receive a little over $117,000 for the list of names.

"Hey, let's face it: the jail and housing are expensive endeavors. There's a lot of liability that goes with the jail, you know, with federal lawsuits and with different things."

The Sheriff said the federal government's money goes towards things like beds, detainee supplies, and other expenses associated with the jail and its $25 million dollar budget.

"We owe it to the citizenry, if we have a chance to recoup some of those costs even, 100,000-117,000 doesn't seem very much compared to 25 million,” he said.

The ordinance passed in a 9-4 vote to approve the funding. As Stephanie Takamaru is fielding calls from concerned Marshallese folks, she said she's at a bit of a loss for what to tell them.

"The whole entire community is on edge. Simply put, we don't know what will happen next."

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