Cobb reckons with dark legacy of immigration detention program

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Surge in Hispanic voter participation helped elect a new sheriff who has promised to end 287(g)

GH Pancho missed the birth of his first son. He was arrested at a checkpoint in Marietta for driving without a license while delivering baby shower invitations.

He and others profiled in this article asked to be identified by a nickname or first name only because they lacked legal status when they became entangled in Cobb County’s 287(g) program, which allows local jails to detain people on behalf of federal immigration authorities. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is protecting their identities due to their concern over stigma or deportation.

“Being undocumented, your dream is just not getting deported,” said Pancho, who was brought to the United States from Mexico as a child. “We can’t think past that. You know as soon as you start building something, anything, it could get taken away from you.”

Now, after more than a decade, the end of 287(g) in Cobb County is nigh.

A groundswell of grassroots activism among local immigrant communities helped unseat the incumbent sheriff, Neil Warren, who first signed onto the program in 2007, and liked to brag he was named one of America’s “toughest” sheriffs on illegal immigration by Fox News.

Hispanic voter participation in Cobb alone increased by 36 percent between 2016 and 2020, while it surged by 72 percent statewide, according to an analysis by the Democratic firm TargetSmart. Asian American participation doubled statewide and rose by 45 percent in Cobb.

Support for 287(g) appears to be on the decline in the metro area. Voters in Gwinnett County also elected a new sheriff who has promised to pull out of the program, and president-elect Joe Biden, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992, has pledged to “aggressively limit” its use nationally.

Supporters say 287(g) makes the community safer by removing violent criminals who are in the country illegally.

But advocates and some law enforcement leaders say 287(g) was used to terrorize immigrant communities in Cobb, eroding trust in the police, breaking up families and discouraging witnesses and victims of crimes from coming forward. Many of the thousands who were caught up in the program had no criminal background and were arrested for driving without a license or minor traffic violations, they say.

The Cobb Sheriff’s Office and Warren did not respond to questions or requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said no one is processed through 287(g) unless they have already been arrested by local law enforcement for a criminal offense.

“Persons encountered through 287g who are foreign nationals subject to removal from the U.S. receive all appropriate legal process,” the spokesman wrote in an email.

Sheriff-elect Craig Owens, a major with the Cobb police department, has promised to pull the county out of the program after witnessing its impact first hand.

“It definitely had a real effect, a terrible effect, on our crime reporting,” said Owens. “I saw that it wasn’t doing the things that the Homeland Security thought it would be doing.”

In addition to pulling out of the program, Owens has pledged to work with immigrant community liaisons to rebuild relationships so that everyone feels safe reaching out to law enforcement for help, regardless of their heritage or immigration status.

Contrary to ICE’s official position that racial profiling is not tolerated under the 287(g) program, critics say that’s exactly what happens.

Jessica Colotl, who became the unwilling face of 287(g) in 2010 when she was arrested for a traffic violation as an undocumented student at Kennesaw State University, recalled her intake process at the jail.

“I didn’t see everyone being questioned about their status, only those people who look like they were Latinos,” she said. “That’s how I knew back then that the program did racially profile a group.”

Jimmy Herndon, a former sergeant in the Sheriff’s Office who lost his own bid for sheriff to Owens in the Democratic primary, also said the deputies assigned to ICE at the jail racially profiled detainees.

“They don’t ask people that look like me and sound like me those questions,” said Herndon, who is white.

Herndon was on the fugitive unit, tasked with tracking down murder suspects, when Colotl’s case and the ensuing media firestorm seemed to consume the attention of Sheriff Warren, who personally attended her court hearings.

“The entire fugitive unit was ordered to stop and work on nothing but her case and investigate her entire family, including sending us over to Gwinnett to do surveillance on them,” Herndon said. “I was in the unit and got roped into that mess.”

Colotl was granted temporary protected status under a program for people who were brought into the country illegally as children, and continues to fight her case in immigration court. Sheriff Warren did not respond to requests for comment.

Kevin Amaya, who grew up in Cobb as the son of Salvadoran immigrants and worked on the sheriff’s race, said the end of 287(g) should be a moment of reckoning for the broader Cobb community, which reaps the benefits of immigrant labor, including that of undocumented immigrants.

“What I would like is just maybe an acknowledgement that this kind of draconian approach to immigration is wrong,” said Amaya. “A lot of kids have grown up without their parents because of [287(g)], and a lot of those kids ... aren’t doing the best, to be honest.

“It’s not a way I think neighbors should treat each other.”

Hector was a child when he was brought to the U.S. He saw both his parents deported, leaving his underage siblings in the care of friends and relatives, before his own checkpoint arrest for driving without a license. He was forced to return to Mexico and eventually crossed back into the country illegally when his efforts to obtain a visa through the proper channels were unsuccessful.

“It was very traumatic,” he said. “We come here to try and work as hard as possible, get honest work, and I think we benefit the country.”

Carlos Garcia of the Pro-Immigrant Alliance of Cobb County said he’s been asked by strangers to sign papers accepting custody of their children because they were being deported to dangerous places like Guatemala and El Salvador.

“That was something I just couldn’t do,” he said. “It was too much. It was too many.”

Garcia, who worked with Owens for years when he oversaw the South Cobb precinct, said he was impressed with the police major and has high hopes for him as incoming sheriff. Garcia recalled how Owens was instrumental in helping find a suspect accused of gunning down an undocumented Hispanic father in front of his children.

“I called him about this case and because of his leadership we talked to the community and finally people were able to come forward and give information that led to the arrest of the perpetrator,” Garcia said. “People actually witnessed who did it, but they didn’t want to come forward because they were more afraid of [being arrested for their] immigration status than the perpetrators themselves.”

Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, credited the election of a new sheriff to grassroots organizing around 287(g). She estimates her group knocked on 120,000 doors in Cobb, in addition to posting up outside grocery stores and other gathering points.

She also said the “disruptive narrative” around immigration coming from the top of the federal government helped mobilize a broad coalition of voters.

“I think that everybody was fed up or tired of this rhetoric,” she said. In addition to Latinos, she said the Black community, refugee advocates and other sympathetic groups bolstered their cause.

“They live in the same neighborhoods and they have seen how devastating it was,” Nicholls said. “It was a call for communities at large to get out and vote and the community showed up.”


By the numbers: People encountered and removed from the country by federal immigration authorities via Cobb County’s 287(g) program over the past seven years. The program has been in place since 2007:

FY2020: 1,098 encountered, 225 removed

FY19: 1,615 encountered, 317 removed

FY18: 1,554 encountered, 354 removed

FY17: 1,487 encountered, 288 removed

FY16: 1,189 encountered, 96 removed

FY15: 943 encountered, 104 removed

FY14: 764 encountered, 302 removed