On any given day, numerous Hispanic men, women and children enter and leave the ramshackle little store in a tired-looking and dilapidated working-class neighborhood, taking a quick break to stop for groceries, soft drinks or cigarettes as they go about their daily routines.
Drive further into Hamilton or nearby Fairfield, and motorists will see a different and more ominous sign: large billboards featuring the image of Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones under the stern warning, "Hire an illegal, BREAK THE LAW!"
The signs reveal the changing face of Butler County as it struggles with the stresses and opportunities of assimilating an influx of Hispanic residents during the past decade. Between 2000 and 2006, the county's Latino community grew by 72 percent — up to 8,197 residents from less than 4,800 just a few years ago, according to U.S. Census statistics.
Overall, an estimated 32,000 Hispanic people live in the Tristate region, a 48 percent increase since 2000.
Along with Boone County in Kentucky and nearby Warren County, Butler County has experienced the largest increase. That's because each of the counties — lying on the edges of the metropolitan region — are home to manufacturing companies that need cheap, unskilled labor. The counties also have sprawling, undeveloped land that's quickly being converted into residential subdivisions full of split-level homes, swimming pools and golf courses.
Those trends created headlines last August when local and federal law enforcement officials conducted a raid at the Koch Foods Co. chicken packaging factory in Fairfield and rounded up 161 illegal immigrants working there.
More than 300 officers participated in the high-profile raid.
Among the officers were deputies working for Jones, who has made cracking down on undocumented foreign workers his special mission for the past three years.
Jones first gained notoriety a few months after taking office, in October 2005, when he began sending bills to the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seeking to cover the cost of keeping alleged illegal immigrants in the county jail.
The following May, Jones' deputies arrested and then released 18 Hispanic people from a home construction site in rural Wayne Township. Their speedy release occurred because local law enforcement agencies usually don't have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws unless special circumstances apply.
At the time, Jones pledged to get the additional training and certification needed for his deputies so they could enforce the laws when necessary.
He kept his promise: In February, eight deputies received ICE training in order to conduct limited immigration investigations. The special designation means deputies can check on the immigration status of people already in police custody. Eventually, the authority might be expanded to include checks on immigrants stopped for minor crimes like traffic violations.
The sheriff's in-your-face methods and outspoken views have made him the darling of conservative media outlets like Fox News and The Washington Times, where he's regularly given a national platform for his cause.
"I'm a bold person," Jones says, with a chuckle and a gleam in his eyes.
'They gave the sheriff a little love'
Known as "Jonesy" to his friends and admirers, the sheriff says he became concerned about the drain on his budget caused by holding undocumented immigrants for long periods of time.
"I noticed there were people in my jail and ICE wasn't coming to pick them up, they just don't have the manpower," Jones says. "So I started sending bills to the President of the United States for the cost of housing the prisoners here. I sent bills to the President of Mexico. They didn't much like that."
Despite widespread criticism for his stance, Jones won that particular battle. ICE now reimburses Butler County for holding illegal immigrants at a cost of $55 per day.
"And they pick prisoners up and take them away," he adds, with a noticeable touch of pride in his voice. "I call it 'con air.' They fly them back to the countries from whence they came. It's not just Mexico. They fly them all over the world to different countries.
"ICE and I didn't have a real good relationship in the beginning, but we do now. All I wanted was a little love, and they gave the sheriff a little love."
Some people who regularly work with Hispanic immigrants — legal and otherwise — take a dim view of Jones' practices. Undocumented immigrants make convenient scapegoats for people frustrated about broader economic problems affecting U.S. society, they say. Unscrupulous politicians tend to exaggerate the problem and stoke fear to win votes.
"People are being stopped by police officers merely for the reason to ask about their immigration status," says Marilyn Zayas Davis, a local attorney who works with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "Immigration status is not a crime, it's a civil offense. And most of the people doing the stops don't have the authority to do them."
The Rev. William Jansen, Hispanic ministry director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati, believes racism is a factor in the crackdown.
"I've seen the effects in the lives of the people the sheriff's dealt with," Jansen says. "It's an enormous amount of fear. People don't know if they're going to be pulled over at any moment for no reason.
"If he's truly concerned about illegal immigration, then he would be pulling over more white people and checking their status, because there's people here illegally from Russia and the Ukraine. He'd be checking on more African Americans because there's some here illegally from West Africa and the Indies. But he only pulls over our people."
Jones strongly denies that his department engages in racial profiling.
"I would like to have the authority for my employees to stop people that are illegal," he says. "There needs to be a reason to stop someone, like a traffic violation. You can't profile someone."
Once a person is stopped, however, Jones advocates giving law enforcement more discretion.
"If you stop someone who's committed a minor crime, a misdemeanor, law enforcement should be able to arrest those people, turn them over to ICE and they should be deported," he says.
For his part, Jones says he doesn't begrudge anyone who wants to immigrate into the United States legally and welcomes them into his community. What he resents are people who want the benefits of living here without accepting the responsibilities that go along with citizenship, like paying taxes.
"Mexico is not one of the poorest countries in the world," he says. "In fact, it's one of the richest countries in the world. They're one of the biggest oil producers. The government is so corrupt and the police are corrupt that people are coming here for a better life. But this country has rules, we're a nation of laws. We were founded upon people obeying the law. That's why we have police, that's why we have jails, that's why we have courts.
"Just coming in because you're poor and thinking you can sneak in, that's not right. They drive a car without a driver's license and don't have any insurance, pay any taxes and go to the hospital for free and go to school for free — that sure is great for them. But I don't know of any country in the world where you can do that."
Although the U.S. Census doesn't compile statistics on immigration status, most experts state there are between 10 million and 15 million illegal immigrants in the nation. About 1 million more enter illegally each year.
Constituents tell Jones they're concerned about undocumented workers, he says.
"Every day you pick up the paper or turn on the TV, you see illegals being arrested for crimes," the sheriff says. "People are scared. They're worried about what we're doing."
'A travesty of justice'
A closer analysis of crime and population trends doesn't support the frequent claims by cable TV commentators such as Bill O'Reilly, Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck that illegal immigrants are disproportionately responsible for a crime wave.
Between 1994 and 2005, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States more than doubled, to about 12 million, but violent crime fell by one-third during the same period and property crimes dropped by more than 25 percent. In fact, bigger cities with large populations of undocumented immigrants typically had steeper drops in crime.
The disparity between fact and belief is what Wall Street Journal Editor Jason Riley calls a "perception gap" in which some demagogues are "inflaming the problem out of proportion."
Riley, a conservative who believes in free market economics, says the U.S. government's immigration policies are outdated and should be changed to make it easier for people from Mexico and other Latin America nations to enter the U.S.
"If you want to reduce illegal immigration, give people more legal ways to come," Riley said during a recent appearance publicizing his book on the topic, Let Them In.
Still, the U.S. government seems to be focusing its efforts on deporting illegals, not reforming the system to make it more efficient.
In May, federal agents conducted a raid at a Postville, Iowa, kosher meat processing facility and detained nearly 400 workers. In an unusually quick turnaround, local officers and ICE agents arrested, charged with crimes, extracted pleas and sentenced 297 of these individuals by the end of the following week, according to the American Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization.
Kathleen Walker, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the bust represents a new level of planning and coordination between the U.S. Attorney's Office in Iowa, the Department of Homeland Security and the federal courts. She says the strategy is designed to force rapid guilty pleas under the threat of serious jail time, avoid the inconvenience of trials, limit access to immigration counsel and simultaneously impose criminal sentences and removal orders.
In the Postville case, the court-appointed attorneys were required to represent groups of 10 to 20 individuals or more, and more than 90 individuals were processed by the court in a single day.
"With the government bearing down hard and fast, these folks did just what the engineers of this new machine intended — they got on board and signed away their life in this country," Walker says. "The court proceedings in Iowa were a travesty of justice and have no place in a constitutional democracy. Immigrants, even those working without documentation, deserved their day in court, not a five-minute ride on a judicial cattle car that compromises the integrity of our system."
But Jones counters that the "get tough" approach actually helps illegal immigrants, who he says are being exploited by many of the companies that employ them.
"Think about it: If I have a group over here that's doing all the drywall work in this county and they're here illegally, the person who hires them can do anything he wants," the sheriff says. "He can fire them, not pay them, mistreat them. It's the equivalent of slave labor. They've taken these people from Mexico and they've created a slave economy with these people. When the wealthy business owners say, 'Americans won't do these jobs,' I agree. They won't do them for what they're willing to pay.
"Here in America, the dream is to come here and have what we all have, not to work people 16 hours a day, seven days a week. It's a rip-off to these people. They sell them cars for three times what they normally go for."
Some statistics indicate that undocumented immigrants depress wages by about 15 percent, although reliable figures are difficult to determine.
Many Americans are unwilling to do the tough physical labor being performed by illegal immigrants, Jones concedes.
"I wouldn't do it for $4 an hour either," he says. "Who the hell wants to work for minimum wage?"
'I'm not for rounding everybody up'
Jason Riveiro, president of LULAC's Cincinnati chapter, says Jones hasn't been willing to meet with his group to discuss its concerns about how he handles immigration issues. The stance is at odds with someone who's serious about learning about the problem, Riveiro claims.
"We've never had a one-on-one, that's something we're willing to do," he says. "Every time we've tried to, he's only offered us his assistant. In a compliment to (Jones), he's done a great job in using the media and sensationalizing the issue. He's been very effective."
The boisterous, mustached Jones, 54, has spent his entire adult life working in law enforcement in one capacity or another. He was Butler County's chief deputy for 12 years and previously worked in the state corrections system for 17 years, retiring after he attained the rank of major.
A Hamilton native, Jones holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Wilmington College and a master's degree in corrections from Xavier University.
Jones and his wife, Becky, have two children: Richard Jr., a former police officer who is active in the U.S. military, and Amanda, a dispatcher with the West Chester Township Police Department who is married to a cop.
Law enforcement is ingrained in Jones' DNA. While he was growing up, his father was a police officer and his mother worked for the Sheriff's Office.
"I've been in this business my whole life," Jones says. "I enjoy it. When it's no fun anymore, I'll quit and go home."
That day might come sooner than many people expect.
Jones, who is the most popular elected official in Butler County, is frequently courted by conservative groups and a few well-heeled contributors to seek higher office. One of the offices mentioned is challenging U.S. Rep. John Boehner, the ranking Republican member in the House of Representatives.
Jones doesn't like to discuss his future political ambitions. "I always say, 'Not at this time.' "
While Jones has become a poster boy for the Fox News crowd, not all of his views are so knee-jerk archconservative. The sheriff likes to paint himself as more of a populist Teddy Roosevelt-style politician.
"I'm very strong on immigration but I'm strong on other things, too," Jones says. "I think all Americans should have health care. We need to do more for the working men and women. The unions, they helped make this country. If there's a lockout or a strike, I'm the first one out on that line, but I'm the only Republican there."
Like many people in the Rustbelt Midwest, Jones has no affection for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and unbridled economic globalization.
"I am so disgusted with NAFTA and the people running for president who support NAFTA," he says. "Is this a sheriff issue? No. But is it an American issue? Yes, and I'm an American before I am a sheriff.
"When I talk to Americans who can't do drywall jobs, who can't do plumbing, that can't do cement work or landscaping jobs, it makes me mad. Everyone can't go to school and become a rocket scientist. We are losing 20 percent of the construction trade to people that are here illegally. It's the working men and women in this country that are paying the price."
Although Jones believes the problem of undocumented immigrants can be solved only at the federal level, he prefers stepped up enforcement of existing laws. He especially dislikes a 2005 bill proposed by U.S. Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy that would have given a temporary six-year visa to undocumented immigrants and allowed them to request permanent residency after they'd paid back taxes, a fine and proved their English language fluency.
"It was amnesty," Jones says. "They came up with a new term, they call it something else: 'a path to citizenship.' Well, I went to public schools and I read the dictionary, and I know what that means. It's amnesty.
"I'm not the most excited in the world about Sen. McCain running for president. He's weak on immigration, kind of a moderate. Any time I see somebody standing next to Ted Kennedy, it makes me want to throw up."
Jones also opposes the Bush Administration's plan to build a security fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border at a cost some say could reach $49 billion.
"I'm not a big supporter of fences and walls," Jones says. "It will probably be a contract that goes to Halliburton. They build the walls and fences in the big cities, and they do work. What it does is it pushes the illegals out into the rural areas, and it makes it harder for them and they have to go longer distances. When they cross over in the cities, as soon as they get 50 feet in, they got people to hide them out and they blend in and you can't tell.
"I'm not for rounding everybody up. That's embarrassing and it's a stupid idea. My idea is self-deportation: no jobs, no welfare, no education and enforce the laws we have. We won't need a fence or anything at that point. If you get arrested once, you get deported. If you get arrested a second time, you go to prison for five years. People open the gates up three times a week so they can run back. They will self-deport themselves."
Riveiro is skeptical of Jones' sincerity.
"There's a way to accomplish both things," Riveiro says. "You can have enforcement and still have good relations with the Hispanic community. Instead of pointing fingers and alienating the people, you build bridges and trust with them."
Because of the atmosphere Jones has created in Butler County, many Hispanics there are distrustful of law enforcement. That, in turn, makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by some employers.
"In cities with large Hispanic populations, they know there's a better way to go about this," Riveiro says. "People aren't going to report crimes when they feel like they can't turn to the police."
Jones replies that law-breakers of any sort shouldn't be tolerated — whether they're breaking criminal statutes or immigration laws. And he doesn't buy that the federal government can't do a better job if it truly wanted to.
"A wise man once said to me that UPS can track 15 million packages a day, where they are by the hour, but the federal government cannot track 15 to 20 million illegals," Jones says. "His suggestion was that we give everybody UPS packages so maybe we can track these people and know where they're at. We may have to enlist the help of UPS to do that."
Jansen, who performs Mass at Su Casa Ministries in Carthage, is offended by Jones' attitude.
"I look at people as human beings who command respect," the priest says. "All people should command respect. I know something about the backgrounds of many of these people, and they come from horrible conditions."
Regardless of any backlash, Jones is glad that he's brought attention to the immigration issue.
"Do I feel I have a bully pulpit? Sure, I do," he says. "And do I use that bully pulpit? Yes, I do. Not every sheriff in the state of Ohio uses the bully pulpit. I do.
"Who would've thought two and a half years ago, when I first came out with this, that this would be a national, presidential issue? And I was here first. People are so tired of politicians not standing up."