Alien program interests Benton County sheriff


Posted on Thursday, March 22, 2007

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ROGERS — The Benton County sheriff is considering enrolling eight jailers in a federal program that enforces immigration laws.

Sheriff Keith Ferguson expressed his intention after meeting with representatives of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Rogers on Wednesday.

Jesus Ramos, the agency’s unit chief, and Rod Reyes, resident agent in charge, met behind closed doors with Ferguson and four Rogers officials: Mayor Steve Womack, Police Chief Steve Helms, City Attorney Ben Lipscomb and Alderman Bob Goodwin.

Benton County sheriff’s Capt. Mike Jones also attended the two-hour meeting.

Rogers applied for enrollment of six officers in the 287 (g ) program in November. The program was created in 1996 with an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers train local law enforcement for about five weeks and design a program that allows them to question, detain and process suspected illegal aliens encountered during their daily work.

Last month, Ferguson said the 287 (g ) program should be implemented in jails and not by local police. He also said that the program, if used in Rogers, likely would lead to racial profiling.

Ferguson said Wednesday that the program has several benefits, such as giving localities access to computer systems that link them directly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I’m just a little older than Womack is, and I need to look at this longer,” Ferguson said. “I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing.”

Ferguson said his biggest concern is draining the county of officers. He’d need to hire eight jailers to replace those under the program, he said.

“I have a hard time prioritizing crimes,” Ferguson said. “We have to address them as we see them committed in our presence, and for me to have five officers [for example ] out here and all they do is look for illegal immigrants, you’re talking about a lot of man hours, and we already have many problems that need to be addressed.”

Womack didn’t respond to a request for comment on the meeting. He has said since early March that he will not comment to the media on the program.

Manny Gomez, vice president of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, wanted the meeting to be public. Gomez arrived at Rogers City Hall on Wednesday morning to attend the meeting, but he was refused entry.

Gomez represents the local chapter of a national organization that opposes the 287 (g ) program coming to Rogers. League leaders argue the program will lead to racial profiling.

“They’re not giving us an opportunity to voice our concerns,” Gomez said. “There is truth to the fact that the police will have a free hand to racially profile with this program. It’s going to go rampant and will affect everybody.”

Rogers was sued in 2003 by Hispanic motorists who claimed racial profiling by police. The city agreed to a settlement that didn’t include an admission of guilt or monetary damages.

The settlement required Rogers police to form a committee that would meet at least twice a year to discuss efforts to connect with the Hispanic community.

Under the agreement, Rogers police can’t “request specific documents for the sole purpose of determining someone’s civil immigration status,” and “not initiate police action based solely on a person’s perceived or actual immigration status, nor shall they request specific information for the purpose of determining an individual’s status.”