Special Report: Illegal immigrants in Arkansas

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Conway police arrested three workers at the New China restaurant on Harkrider Street in April. They charged Jose Camilo, Cristobol Suy, and Maria Fajardo with using fake social security cards.

Fajardo left Guatemala in 1981, paying a smuggler $40 to float her across the Rio Grande River in an inner tube into Texas. In the 31years since, she’s moved 13 times, taking whatever job an illegal immigrant can find.

“This is no money,” Fajardo told Fox16 one day after her arrest. “For long, long hours. For six days a week working, it’s not money. It’s not, every day so tired, tired, tired, tired, tired.”

Fajardo says she gets most of her jobs, like the one in Conway, through agencies. In this case, there’s a receipt showing Fajardo payed the Houston-based Tai Shan Employment Agency $520 for transportation to Arkansas and the New China job. Fajardo claims the agency knew her immigration status, and recruited her for the job.

“I no have choices,” she explained. “That’s why I working at these agencies.”
Fajardo claims she lived alongside other illegal immigrant employees in a house provided by New China, with rent deducted from her pay. She says after about three weeks of work, she hadn’t been payed at all.

That brings us back to New China, where we met Ben.

“Somebody told me the agency would find me a guy to work for me,” he said, “so I just called it in and I say I need somebody to work for me, if you can get one for me?”

Ben claims he didn’t know the agency sent him an illegal immigrant. Fajardo did provide a forged social security card with a real number, just not hers.

We asked Ben why he would work with an employment agency in Houston when his business is in Conway.

He responded, “I can’t find people to work for me here so I kind of (inaudible) people. Somebody told me I could get someone from this employee agency. I thought I could give it a try.”

The answers we got from the Tai Shan Employment Agency weren’t so helpful either. We called them repeatedly, and they hung-up each time.

Victim Advocacy Specialist Lisette Yang hears stories like Fajardo’s – or worse – all the time.

“It’s very typical,” she said. “Because 99% of my clients are undocumented.”

Various studies estimate 40-50% of Arkansas’ foreign born population are in this country illegally.

“Many of them don’t have those papers to work so it’s a big number,” Yang said. Here’s what concerns her the most: she claims undocumented immigrants like Fajardo are often subject to inhumane living and working conditions and violence – sometimes sexual – because they have no where to turn.

“These types of crimes are very under reported because of the immigration status,” she said.

Turns out Fajardo shares Yang’s concerns.

“I’m very sure. 100 (percent) guarantee,” said Fajardo, “somebody want to kill me.”

But after 31 years of living in the shadows, Fajardo wants the story out.

“Every worker – big, medium, small – that’s illegal people,” she said. “It’s slaves.”

A few days after police arrested Fajardo at New China, she says the restaurant cut her a check.

“The restaurant pay me $300. That’s more better than nothing. For 17 days, 17 days of hard work. But oh well. There’s no options. I’ll take it.”

Fajardo moved out of the New China house and now a charity is providing her with temporary housing. She also contacted an immigration lawyer and hopes to become a documented american citizen.

“I find good job,” she said, explaining her plan for the future, “and later on when I can do that, I buy my truck, a little truck. I like trucks. And then with my apartment I live very good. If those people leave me alone.”

After three decades in America, Maria Fajardo hopes Arkansas is her last stop.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office won’t confirm or deny that they’re investigating the New China restaurant for hiring illegal immigrants. We made multiple attempts to interview the owners of New China, but they refused to speak with us. Their employee Ben did call Fox16 the day after we interviewed him though, saying the restaurant will do its best not to hire any more illegal immigrants.

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