Cobb, Gwinnett end 287(g) immigration programs, work to build trust

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Jornal_constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Jornal_constitution

Maria hasn’t seen her son since he was deported to Mexico in 2009 after an arrest for driving without a license. She’s never met her two granddaughters. She doesn’t know if she ever will.

Like thousands of others in Gwinnett County, Jorge Alejandro Pineda was deported through a program known as 287(g). The program allows jailers to check inmates’ immigration status and share that information with U.S. customs officials, who can initiate deportation proceedings regardless of whether a crime was committed.

In each of the past two years, the Gwinnett jail accounted for more contacts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement through 287(g) than anywhere else in the country, according to information from ICE. The Cobb County jail was No. 2 in the nation in 2019; a ranked list of facilities was not available for 2020.

Gwinnett’s newly elected sheriff, Keybo Taylor, announced Jan. 1 that he had ended the program, which started there in 2009. Cobb’s new sheriff, Craig Owens, ended his department’s 14-year participation Jan. 19. Both sheriffs are Black Democrats, the first to be elected in those roles for their respective counties.

“Day One, I said I was going to do away with that program,” Taylor said. “I felt that program was more detrimental to the safety and health of Gwinnett County than any benefits it may have brought.”

Advocates of the voluntary program said it helps keep crime in check while keeping down jail populations. Former Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway, who initiated the program there, said by ending 287(g) the new sheriffs are “letting criminals back in the community to do more harm.” Their decision is a mistake, he said.

Critics say participation creates lasting harm in immigrant communities and engenders distrust of police.

Taylor and Owens’ decisions are being applauded by groups that work with immigrants. But it comes too late for people like Maria, who immigrated illegally 20 years ago then returned to Mexico to bring her son and daughter to Georgia.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Jornal_constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Jornal_constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is referring to Maria only by her first name to protect her identity because of her immigration status.

Maria’s son Pineda, then 21, was stopped at a Hall County checkpoint on the way to a dentist’s appointment, Maria said, then was transferred to the Gwinnett jail.

“When your kids aren’t bad, when your kids behave well, when your kids are loving and are only working, it’s very hard that just for not having a license they grab them out of your hands,” Maria said. “Because of a simple ID, there has to be so much suffering.”

In 2020, Gwinnett accounted for 25% of almost 17,000 ICE interactions through the program. Cobb made up 6.5%. Those percentages were similar in 2019, when ICE had almost 25,000 interactions through 287(g).

About 2,500 people have been deported from Gwinnett through the program since 2018, according to data from ICE. About 900 were deported from Cobb in the same time period, the data shows.

Is it safe to call police?

The 287(g) program creates barriers between law enforcement and immigrants, say people who work in those communities. And both Gwinnett and Cobb have large immigrant communities.

Gwinnett has nearly a million residents, a quarter of whom are foreign-born. Of Cobb’s 760,000 residents, 16% were born outside the U.S.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the nonprofit GALEO, which seeks to increase civic engagement and leadership among Latinos in Georgia, said he frequently gets called when crimes are committed in Hispanic communities.

Even victims want to know: Is it safe to call the police?

Gonzalez said because of 287(g), he never felt comfortable giving that assurance.

“This was a way to terrorize immigrant communities,” Gonzalez said of the program. “When you have a segment of the population that’s not willing to call the police to solve a crime, it undermines all of our public safety.”

At the Gwinnett County Police Department, Corporal Collin Flynn said the sheriff’s department’s embrace of 287(g) “doesn’t affect the way we do business at all.” He said GCPD officers never questioned anyone’s citizenship status.

“We just didn’t want to have any part of it,” he said.

Gigi Pedraza, executive director of the Latino Community Foundation of Georgia, said the program has created a general fear of law enforcement. She recalled seeing mold and raccoons in apartments, and talking to residents who were afraid to report their landlords or abusive partners for fear of deportation.

“Families are just so afraid of being separated, they’d rather not call,” Pedraza said.

Pedraza and others say the separations do lasting harm.

“It has such a deep impact on families and communities,” said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund. “It’s felt throughout our community.”

Snellville mayor pro tem: Program `misapplied’

Dave Emanuel, Snellville’s mayor pro tem, said he’s in favor of the 287(g) program and that it works well when the targets are “actual criminals, as opposed to minor violators.”

“Now you’re going to have ICE going into communities where people are doing nothing but working and earning a living,” he said. “My concern is you’re going to have a lot more innocent people being deported.”

An ICE spokesperson declined an interview request for this story.

Emanuel said he thought the program had been “misapplied” by engaging so many people stopped for traffic violations.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Conway, the former Gwinnett County sheriff, said keeping fewer people in jail was a main benefit of 287(g).

A Republican who decided to not seek reelection after 24 years, Conway said 287(g) reduced recidivism by deporting people who otherwise would have been arrested multiple times in a year. As Gwinnett’s population grew, he said, the jail population remained steady — something he attributed to the program, which cost the county about $2 million a year.

“It was about tax money and safety,” he said. “I think it helped both.”

Monthly ICE reports detail some of the people who have been detained. In the last few months in Cobb County, those people include a Jamaican citizen who had been sentenced to ten years for armed robbery and a Mexican citizen who drove on suspended license and failed to yield to a pedestrian at crosswalk.

In Gwinnett, they include a citizen of El Salvador who was charged with aggravated child molestation by sodomy.

And in Hall County, a Mexican citizen was also arrested for drug trafficking. Hall continues to participate in the program.

Politics or safety?

Austin Kocher, a geographer at Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — a research institute that analyzes federal data regarding immigration enforcement — said the program is more about politics than safety.

The new Gwinnett and Cobb sheriffs both ran on eliminating the program. Kocher said they tapped into the shifting sentiment in the metro area, as those communities became more diverse.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Taylor defeated Lou Solis, who was Conway’s deputy chief and had vowed to continue the program. Owens defeated long-time Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren, who initiated the program there.

“There’s been a real sweep of Black sheriffs replacing the old guard white sheriffs,” Kocher said.

Kocher, who has done research on the program in metro Atlanta, said counties that participated in 287(g) had a “pattern and practice of racial profiling.” Conway, the former sheriff, denied that.

Lena Graber, a senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said 287(g)’s implementation had changed policing patterns. Where the program exists, she said, there are more low-level arrests of Latinos in particular.

Graber said immigration enforcement should not be the purview of local law enforcement.

“They’re having other governments do their work for them without having to pay for it,” Graber said of ICE.

Kocher said his research has led him to the conclusion that “the 287(g) program is a failure.”

Ending the program is a first step, activists said. That success shows residents the power of their voice and encourages them to get more involved in communities.

Saba Long, a spokesperson for Cobb sheriff Owens, said that department plans to hire Spanish-speaking employees to better connect with Hispanic residents. Taylor, in Gwinnett, said he plans to diversify that department’s ranks.

“My job is to come in and eliminate distrust,” Taylor said. “It’s going to be extremely challenging, but that’s why we’re here.”

Staff writer Alia Malik contributed to this story.