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In the Pit With the Fighting Roosters

A massive raid on a long-running cockfighting ring in Arkansas has raised complex questions about ICE, immigration, and the future of a centuries-old tradition

Jaya Nicely

The gamecock was small, but he was brave. He stretched out his neck, his feathers standing up around his head like a great, mottled red lion’s mane. He hovered just above the ground, high enough to strike down on his foe with his claws. And not just that, but with sharp metal blades his owner had affixed to his legs. He was a sparring cock, a single-stroke stag, which means he fought by leaping and plunging toward his opponent with his talons. With luck he would drive his spike directly into the other bird’s heart and end the fight right there. But his opponent was brave, too. He grabbed at the stag with his beak and tried to pull him in close. He was a shuffler. Like a boxer who fights inside, he got his opponent close and tried to cut him up with his heels. His was a more prolonged kind of fight, but one equally effective for the bird that is adept. Strike high or cut low. The best gamecocks can do both, but how to teach them? Is a rooster’s fight a product of training, or instinct? Nature or nurture? It is a question that cockfighters have debated for millennia.

On this unseasonably warm March afternoon in Sevier County, Arkansas, a crowd gathered beneath a tin-roof fight barn on the top of a hill about a quarter mile from the main road. They gathered, as they did every week in one city or another around the region, to witness the fights. They were there to cheer on their favorite birds. They paid $20 each to be admitted to the fights, and they brought even more money along with them to bet. They came from all over Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, as far away as New Jersey. This particular day’s event was a derby: a series of fights in which the owners each put up a sum — in this case $400 — and whoever’s birds won the most fights at the end of the day took the entire pot. The derby in Sevier County was well attended that day, and unusually so. There were nearly 140 people under the fight barn, including 17 minors, each and every one of them in violation of Arkansas’s unlawful animal fighting statute.

The two roosters continued to dance around the ramshackle pit, hastily built with sheets of plywood and 4-by-4s months prior. One bird belonged to a white man, a middle-aged portly fellow from near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. The other bird belonged to a Mexican man from De Queen, Arkansas, the seat of Sevier County. But before either man could learn which of them would win the derby, a voice bellowed from above: “Do not run. Return to the top of the hill.” A helicopter descended on the pavilion, and spectators fled in every direction. A phalanx of white vehicles sped around the horseshoe driveway that surrounded the fighting grounds. Out of them poured officers with rifles and pistols drawn. They put their guns against men’s and women’s heads alike, shouting at them to lie on the ground. They wore uniforms of the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department, the De Queen Police, the Arkansas State Police, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Some of them wore uniforms that matched the symbol on the helicopter overhead — Department of Homeland Security. These were the ones most people feared. These were the Customs and Border Protection and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, guns at the ready, more than 600 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

The residents of Sevier County had grown used to seeing ICE agents in the last couple of years, especially around De Queen. While the federal agency doesn’t have an office in the town of around 6,600 people in Southwest Arkansas, it has kept tabs on the community for as long as the agency has existed. In the past year the residents of De Queen have noticed that ICE has begun monitoring the activity in this community. Its agents have been known to unexpectedly knock on people’s doors, or to pop in unannounced in their places of business. Their squad cars are often spotted rolling downtown late at night, along what the locals call “Little Mexico.”

De Queen is the first and only majority-Latino city in Arkansas, at roughly 60 percent of the city’s population. That number has been growing steadily over the past 30 years, and many of the Latinos moving to De Queen over that period have been undocumented immigrants, some of whom spent their life savings to cross the border illegally and some of whom have overstayed a work permit or green card. Many of those undocumented immigrants have lived in this small community for more than two decades. Their children were born here, grew up here, and have graduated from the high school here. They have started businesses and churches, built houses. Their numbers have grown such that they are now the vast majority, yet there isn’t a single Latino elected official in De Queen. There is only one Latino officer among the city police and sheriff’s departments. Their presence in Arkansas, where Latinos make up a total of 7 percent of the state’s population, was considered for many years to be an aberration. Even as their numbers grew in this region of the state, they remained on the fringes, and largely disenfranchised. Arkansas ranks 49th in the United States in the share of Latinos who are eligible to vote. In 2016, only 29 percent of Latinos in Arkansas were eligible to vote, compared with 79 percent of white Arkansans.

Despite that imbalance, now that Latinos make up the vast majority of the community, the mayor of De Queen, Billy Ray McKelvy, proudly boasts that his city is “the most diverse city in the state of Arkansas.” An uneasy peace and understanding has slowly grown in De Queen among the foreign-born and native Arkansan residents. That peace, however, was severely disrupted after Donald Trump was elected president.

One of Trump’s first acts as president was to sign a series of executive orders that gave broad authority and powers to the federal government’s immigration enforcement agencies. Under the Obama administration, ICE had focused on deporting undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crimes, but law-abiding immigrants were often simply monitored and asked to check in with ICE on a regular basis. Trump’s executive orders, which sought to tighten what he viewed as lax enforcement of immigration laws under Obama, allowed ICE to detain and deport virtually any undocumented immigrant in the United States for any reason. In Trump’s first year in office, ICE arrested 46,000 noncriminal immigrants — a 171 percent increase from 2016. That change in policy had a chilling effect on the community of De Queen. “People are afraid to do their grocery shopping during the day,” one community activist who I will call Angelica told me, as I helped her family unload their groceries late one night. “People call around to find out where the police and ICE are before they leave the house. They’re afraid to step outside in their own community.”

After the cockfighting raid, ICE issued a press release stating that it had arrested 120 people during the event. The press release said that ICE was checking immigration status of the arrestees and doing worksite I-9 checks at their workplaces. The release roiled a community already on edge. Locals who were picked up in the raid were now worried they could be deported. They reached out to Angelica, who helped put people in touch with Arkansas United Community Coalition, a statewide immigrant rights organization. AUCC criticized the raid, saying it was racially motivated, and pledged to come to De Queen to help people find legal representation and to challenge local law enforcement directly about its cooperation with ICE.

The newly elected sheriff of Sevier County, a 55-year-old former truck driver named Robert Gentry, was caught in the middle. He gave a statement to the press denying that the arrests were racially motivated and saying that ICE wasn’t even involved in the raid. The confusion and fear and distrust that had been simmering in De Queen for the past year finally boiled over. Sheriff Gentry decided to meet it head on. He held an old-school town hall meeting with about 60 local residents in the De Queen High School cafeteria. He was joined by Scott Simmons, the De Queen chief of police, and Chris Wolcott, a sheriff’s deputy and the administrator of the jail. Nearly every sheriff’s deputy and police officer was in attendance. After an opening prayer, Gentry read the first of several anonymous questions that were submitted online: “Why are you guys so closed-minded?”

“Well, for 20-plus years we have been pretty closed-minded,” Gentry began. “But there’s been some changes. … It all started with an attitude change,” he said. “Mine.”

Gentry told the audience about how he had come to change his views on immigration and law enforcement in his time as a Sevier County deputy and now as the elected sheriff. He said that he knew for a fact that crimes weren’t being reported because of victims’ fear that they’ll be deported merely for talking to law-enforcement officers. He said he worried about domestic violence cases, robberies, assaults, child abuse. “We don’t care if you’re here illegally,” Gentry said. “If a crime has been committed against you or a family member, that’s what we’re here for. We’re all in this together. We’re all in this community. All of us could choose to live somewhere else. But since we’re all here, we need to work together.”

Questions came in about ID requirements, and being asked to show proof of citizenship by law enforcement. Gentry said that to report a crime, a resident needed to provide only their name and address. If they were stopped by law enforcement, they didn’t need to show a state driver’s license. They could show company ID, even an ID from the Mexican consulate. Chris Wolcott, the sheriff’s deputy, emphasized the point. “Unless there’s suspicion of a crime or a crime has been committed, there is no state statute that says they have to produce an ID. So we’ll take what they can give us.” Gentry went a step further and said directly to his deputies in the audience that they shouldn’t ever ask anyone their citizenship status.

A young minister from a local church spoke up. “When do you call ICE on someone in the jail?” she asked, reading from notes. Gentry looked at his fellow panelists and grinned.

“We’ve been waiting for this question.”

Since Trump’s election and the increase in aggressive action by ICE that accompanied it, local law enforcement agencies around the country have wrestled with how to respond to ICE requests to detain suspects. Some municipalities have taken the position that they don’t have to hold anyone whom ICE requests for longer than 48 hours without an arrest warrant. Other municipalities and agencies have determined that they are under no legal obligation to cooperate with ICE or any other federal law enforcement agencies in their investigations. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have fought back against these communities, sometimes withdrawing federal monies that had been granted to them for other programs like drug enforcement.

Currently, ICE has access to biometric information in law enforcement databases like fingerprints, so that even in so-called “sanctuary cities” where law enforcement refuses to cooperate with the federal agency, it is still alerted when undocumented immigrants it is looking for are booked into jails. ICE usually requests that the jail hold the person, or will request to do an interview by phone with the arrestee. Some cities have refused to honor these “detainer” and interview requests. Gentry reported that his office has agreed to do both.

Gentry points out that he has refused to sign on to the controversial 287(g) program, which allows ICE access to jails and deputizes local officers to act as immigration enforcement. Because the programs created so much discord, both among law-enforcement agencies and within communities, the number of municipalities taking part had fallen to just 37 by March 2017. Since then, and since Trump and Sessions took aim at jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with ICE, that number has grown to 78. Two of those counties are in Arkansas. But beyond not becoming a 287(g) county, there is little Gentry feels he can do about ICE without inviting the wrath of the Trump administration, and perhaps costing his department federal funds.

Activists like Angelica are unmoved by Gentry’s explanation for why they cooperate with ICE in this way. “What is the federal funding for a little town in Arkansas?” she said to me later. “Whatever that money is and whatever it’s for, it can’t be worth throwing this community under the bus.”

That the sheriff’s department cooperates with ICE in this way is a major source of distrust between the Latino community and law enforcement. Because of President Trump’s executive orders, residents now fear that they can be deported after any interaction with police, no matter how small. Wolcott disagrees that the cooperation with ICE is leading to deportations. He points out of the 110 undocumented immigrants booked into the jail in the last year, only 25 of them were picked up by ICE. “We’re not picking on the Hispanic population at all.” Wolcott goes on to underscore that those 110 people were only 12 percent of the total arrests in 2017, even though Latinos made up 57 percent of the community. “The crime rate in this community,” Wolcott says, referring to the immigrant community, “is very low.”

Mireya Reith, executive director of AUCC, was at the meeting and she speaks up to agree with Gentry that the Trump executive orders and the overall climate since his election makes it very difficult for law enforcement to refuse to cooperate with ICE. She said her organization recommends some steps that can help, including developing a formal system for people to file complaints against officers who are asking people their citizenship status despite the sheriff’s directive. She also suggested that the department put its policy for how it should interact with ICE into writing and distribute it to the community, and come meet with people at churches to answer their questions with translators. “What unites us is that Arkansas is fierce about local control,” Reith told me later. “We have an opportunity to not let national politics dictate to us here. We can figure out what works on the local level and scale up.”

David Hill

After some questions about a hog that had been getting loose and eating a neighbor’s flower beds, Mayor McKelvy thanked people for attending. “We’re not going to establish trust in one night, but I commend the sheriff for trying to do something.” The sheriff spent the rest of the night talking to residents who hounded him with questions about cases of family members, or invited him to come speak at their church, or volunteered to help sheriff’s deputies knock on doors in Little Mexico to invite people to a block party.

“I was dreading this meeting,” he confessed. “But this has been good.”

After the meeting, I met up with Angelica and a number of local residents, many of whom are undocumented, and they told me that while the new sheriff was saying the right things, there was still a long way to go.

They told me the story of Gabriel Figueroa, a local Dish Network retailer, who had lived in De Queen for more than 20 years. He was well known and respected across the community. He had installed satellite dishes for most of the members of the sheriff’s department. When he recently had some issues with someone breaking into vending machines outside of his business, he called the police and reported it. Not long after that, the police called him and asked him to come down to the station. Believing they wanted to discuss the break-in, he readily agreed. When he arrived, ICE agents were waiting for him. They took him into custody and deported him for being undocumented. They didn’t notify anyone in his family. His five children, the youngest 2 and 5 years old, were left behind and have been separated from their father for months. Their father may never be allowed to return to them in the only home they have ever known. “He was a professional. He was a good guy,” said Delfina Lopez, a local resident. “If they could get him, they could get anyone.”

On the heels of the cockfighting raid, with the ICE helicopter flying in the sky above, the specter of a larger crackdown loomed over De Queen. “The scary thing is our community is so small, we all know someone who is undocumented,” said Lopez. “It is not in the best interest of our town to have an immigration raid. People will pack up and leave. We’ve grown so much because of the immigrant community. They’ve come in and started businesses where there were none, where there were just empty buildings. Without immigrants, De Queen would be a ghost town.”

Angelica agreed with Lopez. Her family was one of the earliest immigrant families to settle in the area, more than 20 years ago. She’s seen how families like hers have transformed this small community, and how things didn’t always used to be this way. Her parents started a local business and developed a lot of friendships in the community. They didn’t feel unsafe or unwanted in Sevier County. They worked hard, paid their taxes, and had a normal life. “When I was in high school, I didn’t even know what undocumented was,” she said.

When Angelica graduated from high school, her parents took her to the immigration office to get her green card. The government issued her the card. It was a proud moment for her. Her parents, however, had overstayed their visas. Her father asked the agent who had given Angelica her green card some questions about his own status, and what he should do about it. Rather than offer him help, the immigration officers took Angelica’s parents into custody right in front of her and deported them, leaving her to care for her two younger brothers alone.

“My parents had just purchased a vehicle,” she said. “They still owed money on the house. That was now my burden as a teenager. I had to run a business, pay a mortgage, pay a car payment, raise my brothers. I still don’t know why they were deported. … We thought we were safe. ICE and Border Patrol just do whatever they want.”

Soon after her parents were deported, Angelica met an organizer from the United We Dream campaign, which was working to pass the DREAM Act in Congress. One of Arkansas’s senators at the time, Mark Pryor, was an important swing Democratic vote for the legislation. The United We Dream campaign was organizing young people from De Queen to lobby Pryor for his vote. Angelica and others called his office and told him their stories, pleading with him to support the DREAM Act. When the day came for the vote, he voted no.

Rather than get discouraged, activists like Angelica redoubled their efforts. They followed Pryor wherever he went. They cornered him on public streets, outside of his hotels, wherever they could find him. “We could have been citizens by now!” Angelica told Pryor during one encounter. In 2012, after President Obama enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, AUCC organized free legal clinics every weekend. Together with the help of young local activists, they helped thousands of undocumented immigrants in Arkansas sign up for DACA.

The following year, when Congress took up the DREAM Act again, Angelica was invited to testify before Congress. “I was vocal about my status. I gave my full name. I told them I was from Arkansas and was undocumented. I was in front of [U.S. representatives Bob] Goodlatte and [Trey] Gowdy and all these people who make these policies that affect people like me. I was interviewed after testifying before Congress. I told interviewers who I was, and I didn’t feel threatened.” Today she is reluctant to talk to me, or any other member of the press, about what is happening in De Queen, because since Trump’s election, she has heard stories of ICE targeting activists who give interviews. “I used to say I was undocumented and unafraid. Now I’m undocumented and a little bit afraid.”

This fear permeates all of De Queen, where most residents live in perpetual low-level terror. Will I get pulled over for a broken taillight and never see my kids again? Will my parents leave to go to Walmart and never come home? Is the person knocking on my door here to put me in handcuffs and take me away from my home forever?

One person who had been arrested along with the cockfighters in the raid said that of all the things the undocumented residents of De Queen worry about that could get them picked up and deported, going to the fights might be the craziest one. For one thing, cockfighting was a part of the region’s culture and history. And not just among Latinos. White people had been cockfighting in Arkansas for several generations before any Latino immigrants ever showed up. The sport wasn’t even classified as a felony in Arkansas until 2009. And even after it became a felony, a number of the local sheriff’s deputies and police officers, even some of those who participated in the raid, I was told, still attended the fights.

The cruelest irony, though, may have been that killing birds would get these immigrants sent back, since it was killing birds that had brought them here in the first place.

Poultry is big business in Arkansas. Birds and eggs are the state’s largest agricultural product, and the industry employs more than 40,000 people, from the farms to the processing plants. The second-largest poultry company in the world, Tyson Foods, is headquartered in Arkansas. Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride operate plants nearby. Nearly everyone I met in De Queen either works in a poultry plant or is related to someone who does.

The poultry industry was directly responsible for the rise in undocumented immigrants in this part of Arkansas. During the mid-1990s, in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Tyson started recruiting workers in towns along the Mexican side of the border for its U.S. processing plants. The company paid smugglers and provided them with fake documents to help move people across the border and get them into the plants, according to a 2001 federal grand jury indictment. Many of the families I met in De Queen first settled in Arkansas as part of this wave in the ’90s. Once these immigrants started working in the poultry plants, the managers would ask them to recruit their family members to come as well. “For every Mexican person they hired, they would get rid of two white people,” one former Tyson employee told me. “They wanted the Mexican people because we would work twice as hard.”

Tyson wasn’t just bringing in immigrants to exploit them for back-breaking, low-wage labor. According to testimony during the smuggling trial, Tyson was just as interested in squelching unionization efforts in many of its plants. The industrialization of poultry processing took a job that was once done by skilled butchers and broke it up into smaller jobs that could be done by unskilled workers at a faster rate. The result was that poultry became one of the most physically dangerous jobs in the United States, and by the 1990s employees across the country were threatening to organize and strike over conditions.

By 2001, Tyson’s human trafficking was uncovered by federal investigators, and indictments were handed down to company executives involved in the scheme. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents posed as Mexican smugglers and recorded conversations with Tyson officials, during which the officials offered to pay $200 a head for more than 2,000 immigrants. The executives also requested they be provided with false Social Security cards. “If these folks are hired,” one executive was recorded saying to the undercover agents, “they won’t never be checked.” Shortly after the indictments were announced, one of the managers named in the scheme shot himself in the chest.

While two of the executives caught on tape plotting to smuggle thousands of workers across the border pleaded guilty, the corporation was acquitted by a jury. Tyson argued that the scheme was the work of a few bad apples and not corporate policy. In the years since the trial, Tyson has bent over backward to cooperate with the government, including sharing all of its employment documents with ICE and allowing immigration officers to inspect the plants. But former Tyson employees told me that while Tyson may have tightened up its hiring practices, the company continued hiring undocumented workers even after the indictments, and that during inspections, managers would hide the undocumented workers in trucks until the agents left. Whenever Tyson does get pressured to lay off undocumented workers, those workers go get jobs at one of the other poultry plants, where they would work until immigration officials put the heat on that company. Lather, rinse, repeat—for 20 years.

The cocks seized in the raid — almost 200 of them — are kept at the Sevier County Jail.
Sevier County Sheriff’s Office via AP

Because the poultry industry touches so many lives in this part of Arkansas, violence toward animals is a fact of life. No matter which end of the supply chain someone works in, they are desensitized to the deaths of these animals. Cockfighting may be a blood sport, but chicken farming is wholesale slaughter. The “growers” raise their chickens for 45 days in windowless pens. Some chickens don’t make it. Some are killed while the pickers are throwing them into the cages. Among the ones who make it into the truck alive to go to the plant, a number of them suffocate or die from heat stroke before they arrive. Once at the plant, the birds are put on a conveyor belt to be placed in a “stun bath,” where they receive an electric shock. If a bird is too big, it might not be properly shocked. It will be hung up by its feet and have its throat slit to bleed out while it is fully conscious. Sometimes the machine that severs its neck misses, or malfunctions, and those birds go into a boiler and are boiled alive. Workers estimated to me that 200 to 300 birds per shift end up as “cadavers,” which means they are killed inhumanely. To say nothing of the millions of birds who die “humanely” on their way to our dinner plates, after living crowded together in their own feces for six weeks without ever seeing daylight.

Gamefowl, cockers will argue, live for two years. They are fed apples, yogurt, healthy round diets. They are walked every day for exercise, massaged, nuzzled, and loved. In the end, they, too, will die. They will be killed by another bird in a fight they didn’t choose to enter, so that people may cheer them on, live viscerally through their combat, and wager with one another on their fates.

“People place bets on them. So what?” one person arrested in the cockfighting raid told me. Both the fighting rooster and the chickens in the plant were going to die an unnatural death. “Either way everybody gets paid. Not all them birds end up on the kitchen table. Some are thrown away because they don’t want to be messed with. They just throw them in the drain. That was a life that was wasted.”

On a Saturday afternoon in fall 2016, a group of about 30 cockers and assorted gamblers gathered around a cock pit somewhere in Sevier County. Two of the men entered the pit, each holding a rooster in his arms, with fingers laced tightly beneath the bird’s legs lest it rear them back and stab its owner with the blades. They gently held the birds closer to each other, close enough to let their fighting instinct light up. One bird’s feathers flared up around its head. He pecked at the other, who then raised his wings, ready to fight. The men did this two more times, each time signaling to the roosters that it was time to fight. This wasn’t practice, when the roosters spar at home with their stablemates wearing tiny leather boxing gloves. This was the real thing. This was for blood. A referee called out “Pit!” and the two birds were set down on the ground. The fight began.

There is evidence of cockfighting throughout human history in nearly every part of the world. The earliest records of the sport are from India, around 1500 B.C. Cockfighting was imported to North America by immigrants, the British colonists. Prior to the founding of the colonies, Native Americans were not known to fight birds. The Europeans, however, brought the sport with them from England, where it was a popular pastime. Our future first president, George Washington, even wrote of cockfighting in his journals as a young man.

Cockfighting fell out of popularity in the United States during the Civil War, and a wave of states banned the sport in the late 1800s. It rebounded during the Great Depression, spreading across the rural South and drawing the attention of rich and poor alike, even though it was illegal in most states where fights proliferated. Still, a number of states permitted cockfighting well into the 20th century. The last state to outlaw it was Louisiana in 2007.

Despite the prohibition, many people in Western Arkansas have memories of attending cockfights growing up. That’s because until 2009, cockfighting was only a misdemeanor offense in Arkansas, and fights abounded. “When I was growing up, my family would go just to watch,” one person arrested in the cockfighting raid told me. “We didn’t even bet. We were just there because it was a family outing. When they made it a felony, everyone stopped going.”

Over at the Sevier County Jail, Chris Wolcott showed me a collection of gaffs — the blades that cockers affix to the legs of their birds. “Cockfighting has been a part of this county for my whole life. Long before the Latinos.” Wolcott showed me a pair of metal spikes on tiny leather loops. “When you hear old men talk about cockfighting, this is what they done right here. One of these on each leg.” He then showed me a flat, sharp blade, like a tiny knife. “This came over with the Hispanic culture. The short knives on one leg.” He marveled at this technological evolution. It was yet another example for him of how much this area had become a cultural hodgepodge. “Right here at Cove, Arkansas, Wood Enterprises … they ship cockfighting supplies and game bird supplies all over the world.”

“If it had been four or five or six of these guys gathered up at their place or whatever, friendly little thing, no harm, no foul. No pun intended!” Sheriff Gentry said. “But it got to be bigger than that.”

As the two cocks set into their fight that afternoon in 2016, one of Gentry’s deputies came barreling up the road in his vehicle. The people scattered in every direction. There was no helicopter to intercept them. There was no backup. This was no raid. The deputy got out of his car and approached the man who owned the property and laughed about the fleeing cockers. He wasn’t there to raid the fight, the deputy said. He was tracing a stolen iPhone that was currently sprinting quickly through the woods.

The deputy told Sheriff Gentry about the cockfight, and the sheriff didn’t think much of it. But soon the calls started coming in. Officers in surrounding states — Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma — were arresting people on drug charges and they were offering information on cockfights in exchange for leniency. Time and time again they would mention Sevier County. “One of the cockfighters form Missouri actually told us that there were two counties down in Arkansas where the sheriff don’t care,” Wolcott said. “And I don’t know what the other county is but ours was one of ’em.” Not long after he started getting the phone calls, one of his deputies pulled over a truck carrying several roosters in cages, likely headed for a fight somewhere in Sevier. If word was getting out that his county was turning a blind eye toward cockfighting, then all sorts of strangers would be flooding into Gentry’s backyard. And who knows what they could bring with them? Gentry needed to do something to send a message that Sevier County wasn’t ignoring cockfighting.

Not long after the deputy happened upon the 2016 fights, the organizers approached another family in town about moving the monthly events to their property. They had a good spot, elevated from the road, one way in and one way out. They weren’t cockers, but they, like many in the area, were known to attend the fights throughout the years. They agreed. For the next several months they hosted the fights on their property, constructing a rudimentary fight barn and pit and running a concessions stand out of a small trailer.

Gentry monitored the fights over the next year, gathering intelligence, watching as the size of the fights grew. “We had their schedule down,” Gentry said. “People are creatures of habit. You go to a place where you feel safe.”

Gentry gathered up an army. Fifty-six officers from the state police, the game and fish commission, and the police department. He chose a day, March 17, before the weather got too hot. The only thing left that worried him was the secluded nature of the site. “Our goal was to capture everybody that was there,” he said. But with only one access road and thick forest for miles in all directions, he’d need some air support. In the past he had used one of the helicopters from the Arkansas National Guard. But those helicopters were available to him only as part of a joint drug task force. If Gentry had told the Guard he suspected there would be drugs at the cockfight, he could use their helicopter. But he didn’t want to do that. His investigation so far hadn’t pointed to any drugs. “I couldn’t put it on paper if I wasn’t 100 percent sure.” So Gentry called the other agency that he knew had its own helicopter: DHS. The Department of Homeland Security was all too eager to be involved. “They fixed us up with what we needed. Even a confidential informant.” A cockfighter whom ICE had picked up on an unrelated charge was willing to cooperate and be their inside man.

On the day of the raid, the DHS helicopter flew well above the clouds, far from the view of anyone on the ground. Their cameras, however, could see everything happening on the ground, even from such a great distance. “That old saying about Big Brother is watching?” Gentry later joked. “They have the capability of watching, yes they do.” The agents in the helicopter sent periodic messages to Gentry as he and his team geared up for the raid, updating him on the head count at the fights. “Our expectation was about 60 people,” Gentry said. Once the count hit 90 people, Gentry knew this was going to be much bigger than they had planned for. “We gotta move all this. We gotta move now,” he told his team.

The caravan came in hard and fast. “We made Game and Fish go in first,” Gentry said. Behind them were 40 vehicles, each flooring it up the road to make the quarter mile to the fight barn before anyone could make their escape. The lead vehicles looped around the horseshoe, and the noise from the helicopter and the announcements on the PA distracted the cockfighters long enough to give Gentry’s team time to get into position. They emerged from their vehicles, guns drawn. The attendees, some of whom were there with children, were stunned.

“They had complaints because we all had our guns drawn, but that’s search warrant execution,” Gentry said. “We err on the side of caution. We went in like everybody had a gun.” But when all was said and done, the officers didn’t find a single gun. They didn’t find any drugs. The only weapons they found were the ones strapped to the roosters’ legs.

“Would you believe not a one of them cussed us? Everybody was polite,” said Wolcott. “You couldn’t have found a better hundred and thirty-seven people if you went and drug them out of a church.”

In the foyer of St. Barbara Catholic Church in De Queen there are photos of Holy Communion classes from days gone by. The photos are notable if for no other reason than that the children pictured in them are all white. Today St. Barbara serves an almost entirely Latino parish. There is only one Mass each week in English; the rest are in Spanish, as is the one on this Wednesday night in June. After Father Ramsés Mendieta finished Mass, he introduced guests who had come to address those in attendance. Organizers from Arkansas United Communities Coalition had brought a staff immigration lawyer to town from Memphis to speak to people about their arrests and answer any questions they may have had about their current immigration status. The lawyer, Casey Bryant, was the legal director of the Derechos Immigration Program at Latino Memphis in Tennessee. Bryant had been born and raised in Northwest Arkansas, however, and knew the issues this community was facing all too well.

“How many of you have had problems with the police here in DeQueen?” they began. A number of hands went up in the pews. Bryant encouraged people to ask questions about what they were going through. Some people asked questions from the pews, but many stayed quiet. Bryant cautioned people not to let law enforcement enter their homes without a warrant, to not surrender information about their legal status, and to remember their right to remain silent.

“Sometimes it probably feels hard to not say a thing to someone,” they said. “And sometimes in a situation, it’s maybe better to talk to the person so that you don’t get arrested, but you have to feel that out yourself. And one thing that I think is really important for all of you is to really understand what your immigration status is, what could it be, what are your options for the future, and also have a plan—what if something happens, what is your family going to do when you’re gone. Because unfortunately, the reality is that right now, in this climate, it’s pretty unsafe for people who are undocumented.”

After Bryant finished, they told the audience that they would stay in De Queen for a couple of days and wanted to meet with people and hear people’s stories about dealing with law enforcement. “Part of the reason that we’re here is actually to hear your stories and take those back and find out if there’s any way we can support you all in convincing law enforcement that they shouldn’t be doing the job of ICE.” After Bryant finished, most waited for them in the back of the church to speak privately, away from the prying ears of others, about their individual cases.

The next day Bryant held court at the church office, where a line of people waited to speak to them. The people who showed up weren’t just the ones who were arrested in the cockfighting raid. Many of them were looking for some guidance on their immigration status, or looking to help a family member who had been picked up by ICE or was somewhere in the deportation process. For many of these people, Bryant was the first immigration lawyer they’d had the opportunity to speak with that they felt like they could truly trust. Recently De Queen had been overrun by fly-by-night lawyers who set up shop and charged $200 or more per person just for an initial meeting, which more often than not ended in the lawyer telling the immigrant that they couldn’t help. Those who the lawyers will represent can spend into the five figures on lawyer fees, sometimes for cases with little hope of success. Worse still, De Queen has been hit by so-called “notario publico” scams, where Spanish-speaking notary publics offer to help people file applications for work authorization or asylum, only to disappear after collecting as much as $500 or more for doing the paperwork. Communities like De Queen are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of scams. De Queen is an isolated rural community, nearly three hours from Little Rock in one direction and nearly three hours to Fort Smith in the other. It is a serious burden to travel to another city to meet with a lawyer. The undocumented residents of De Queen are a captive audience for anyone who comes to town promising them help for a fee.

About a month after the raid, a prominent cockfighting activist in Oklahoma named B.L. Cozad Jr. came to Floral, Arkansas, to meet with those who’d been arrested and help with their cases. More than 50 people attended and purchased a USB drive from Cozad for $250 each. He told them to file the documents on the drive with the court and to ask to represent themselves. Cozad’s file was a 21-page request to dismiss that quotes Thomas Jefferson, the Bible, and Shakespearean studies, and argues that “neither the majority of voters nor the elected government officials can enact a law forcing Americans into the religious beliefs of animal worshiping Paganism.” Many of the cockfighters charged with felonies filed the documents. When the court tossed them out, some accused Cozad on Facebook of scamming them. He replied that the judge was clearly corrupt. “Damn you’re like a little whiny-a$$ cry-baby bitch,” he wrote on Facebook to one Arkansas cockfighter. “Filing the Motion to Dismiss with an honest judge would have saved you from the necessity of hiring a lawyer. … Running your mouth and talking negatively about me and the work I’ve written, researched and compiled on the usb just exposes the fact that you’re butthurt because you’re mad.”

Bryant, however, charged people nothing. And residents here knew they could trust Bryant because Mireya Reith and AUCC have a years-long history of providing free legal clinics and workshops, as well as working with this community on important legislative issues like the DREAM Act and DACA.

Reith said that this kind of legal work with immigrants is only part of the solution, however. The court system is a tough venue to fight in. And many of the problems immigrants face begin at the local level, with their interactions with local police or local government agencies. Addressing those problems is simply a matter of organizing. “De Queen has never elected a person of color to any elected office, ever. We need to get Latino leaders in at all levels to help these conversations from within.”

To that end there is Victor Rojas, a 22-year-old De Queen native and former member of the AUCC board of directors who has entered the race for Sevier County Quorum Court. A former student body president at De Queen High School, Rojas is well known and respected across Sevier County. He agrees that De Queen can set an example for the rest of the state, even the country. “White people in De Queen are much further along in understanding immigrants than other places in Arkansas. They don’t demonize.”

Rojas supports Sheriff Gentry and the other law-enforcement officials in Sevier County, and offers himself as a resource to Gentry in reaching out to his community. “We don’t want an anti-law-enforcement narrative in De Queen.” But he also agrees that more transparency is needed. “We need to know more about the relationship they have with ICE.” The fact Rojas is concerned about ICE underscores how important the issue of law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities is in this community. It spans the spectrum, from the churches to the streets, from the school to the jail. It is nearly impossible to find a Latino leader in Sevier County who doesn’t worry about ICE’s aggressive efforts to detain and deport people without warning or explanation, and who doesn’t question why their local police and sheriffs are letting it happen.

The solutions, however, are complicated by Trump’s executive orders and the Justice Department’s efforts to retaliate against communities that don’t toe the line. Reith would like law enforcement across Arkansas to stop cooperating with ICE, but she also knows that things are different now. “There was a period in 2010 when we were organizing around the DREAM Act that we said if the government wants our cooperation they can’t work with ICE,” she said. But Trump’s election was a shock to the system, and has set everyone back. Now the focus is on working with allies to push back on the encroachment of ICE into the community, wherever those allies happen to be. Even if those allies are people like Sheriff Gentry, who many in the community aren’t sure they trust yet. “Being a product of Arkansas, you have to meet people where they’re at,” she said. “I’m not saying what they’re doing is right, but we are a state that is 75 percent white. They don’t have a lot of interaction with immigrants. … They might have been nervous, but our community is, too. We come from the same place of love, which is why we believe in these forums and in communication.”

“This is why I want to build a good relationship with the sheriff,” Angelica told me. “I’m afraid the next step is a raid at the plant, or at the Mexican restaurants. The entire downtown is full of undocumented folks. A raid will be bad for this community. We need to prepare for it. We need to know our rights.

“Maybe I’m naive. But if we have some trust with law enforcement, we can at least get some lead time on a raid,” she said. “Maybe I’m stupid, but I definitely think that it can happen.” She reminded me that in 2013, after she testified to Congress, and after their weekly workshops, voter registration drives, and dogged public persuasion of Senator Pryor, when a new version of the DREAM Act came up for a vote in the Senate he switched his vote to yes. When everyone in the community works together, powerful people can be persuaded to change their minds.

Surrounding the Sevier County Jail in all directions, as far as the eye can see, are little cages roughly 2 feet square, each containing its own rooster, nearly 200 birds in all. “We were told that we’ve probably got birds out here on the yard that cost as much as five grand,” Gentry bragged to me. Behind us a group of inmates played basketball, shedding their orange jumpsuits in the scorching summer sun. The sound of their game was periodically drowned out by the calls of the roosters. The prisoners feed and water the birds every day, even though the crowing outside the jail drives them crazy. “Honestly the inmates hate them,” Gentry said. “It gets really loud. You can hear it inside through the walls.”

Nearly every law-enforcement agency that raids a cockfighting operation and seizes the birds ends up euthanizing them, arguing that the fighting rooster is too violent to return to the farm. Sheriff Gentry is keeping these birds alive at the jail, waiting for any cockers to return and claim their property.

“They probably won’t,” he admitted. “They may think someone will deport them.” Still, he waits.

Why, I wondered, doesn’t he just have the birds put down? Gentry paused and considered it.

“I just couldn’t see letting them die,” Gentry said. “They say these birds won’t do nothing but fight, but they’re worth something to someone out here. Somebody will come for them. If their owners won’t, someone else will.”

Why do roosters fight, it is often asked of cockfighters. Some say violence is their nature, that the rooster’s instinct is to fight another rooster to protect his hens, his chicks, his family. Others say that roosters are bred to fight by their owners, that their fighting instincts are unnatural and ingrained in them by humans, who pit them against one another for their own financial gain. In either case, it seems the fighting rooster has had no choice at all.

The birds outside the Sevier County Jail will no longer be pitted against one another. Their gaffs have been permanently removed. Still they are small but brave. Still they stretch out their necks. One by one, they each belt out a furious crow. All together, they rattle the jailhouse walls.

David Hill is currently writing The Vapors: A Casino in Southern Gothic for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. His website is

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