Immigration Crackdown Felt in Arkansas

Immigration Crackdown Felt in Arkansas
Cristina Monterrey is an attorney specializing in immigration issues. (Karen E. Segrave)

North Little Rock attorney Cristina Monterrey has seen what immigration policy under President Donald Trump has meant for her clients in the past year.

For over five years, most of her undocumented clients who were placed in removal proceedings in immigration court had some sort of criminal history, said Monterrey, a managing partner at the Monterrey Law Firm whose practice includes immigration law.

The administration’s policy shifts now include having U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement prioritize deportation of all undocumented immigrants.

“In the last year or so, you’d see folks without any criminal history picked up and put into removal proceedings,” Monterrey said.

The policy change is a loss for companies that employ workers whose legal status is pending, Monterrey said. While it’s typically illegal to hire undocumented workers, “there are situations where a person has a pending application and can get an employment permit while that application is pending,” she said. The employment permit lets immigrants work even though they don’t have the final legal status yet, she said. Now those workers could be picked up by ICE.

“If that was an employee of yours … you’re scrambling at the last minute to find somebody to do that person’s work,” she said. “And you’ve got a lot of these folks who are business owners.”

And matters could get worse for businesses. Temporary protected status for citizens of El Salvador, which lets them stay in the United States legally, will end in September 2019, said Laura K. Ferner, a partner at Crouch Harwell Fryar & Ferner of Springdale.

“Those people won’t be eligible or authorized to work,” she said. “Some businesses up here in northwest Arkansas are looking at losing a substantial amount of employees that have been with them for a long time.”

Ferner said ICE I-9 audits are another business concern. Those are audits of documents verifying employees’ identity and employment eligibility. Once a business gets an audit notice, it has 48 hours to hand over all I-9 forms and supporting documents. “I’ve been hired on some I-9 audits for clients,” she said. “They usually come to me when they get a notice of inspection … not before.”

Ferner naturally recommends that businesses concerned about I-9 forms consult a lawyer with immigration experience to ensure their files are in order.

Monterrey said winning an immigration case in court is “an uphill battle. Everything has to be … very detailed. Everything has to be well documented.”

Even then chances are uncertain. This summer Monterrey represented an undocumented immigrant who had been in the country for six or seven years and was married to a citizen. She faced a removal order, but sought a stay to care for her husband, who back problems.

A stay had been approved every year for the past three years, Monterrey said. But this year her request was denied.

“Nothing had changed. If anything, her husband’s condition had worsened.”

Neemah A. Esmaeilpour, an immigration and employment attorney at Wright Lindsey Jennings of Little Rock, has noticed changes in approvals of H-1B visas, which let companies hire immigrants to work in specialized fields. He said those petitions now face more scrutiny by U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, as is ICE.

“For example, filing for a H-1B petition for a position in the past was pretty routine [in] that they would approve it,” he said. “Now they’re making you jump through all sorts of hoops and put forth more evidence.”

Esmaeilpour said an increase in ICE raids for immigration violations at companies around the country hasn’t been seen in Arkansas — yet.

In northwest Arkansas, there’s a “ton of construction, and agriculture is present in the rest of Arkansas, so if there was an initiative by ICE to target those industries, you can see Arkansas businesses falling in those crosshairs,” he said. “But that doesn’t seem to be the case right now. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”