‘New era in Cobb’: Sheriff ends controversial immigration enforcement program

Cobb Sheriff Craig Owens speaks during a press conference announcing the end of Cobb County's participation in the Federal 287(G) Program on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, at the Cobb County Sheriff's Office in Marietta, Georgia. The Federal 287(G) Program was a collaboration between the sheriff's department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Cobb Sheriff Craig Owens speaks during a press conference announcing the end of Cobb County's participation in the Federal 287(G) Program on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, at the Cobb County Sheriff's Office in Marietta, Georgia. The Federal 287(G) Program was a collaboration between the sheriff's department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

A federal immigration enforcement program denounced by critics as breaking up families and perpetuating racial profiling will no longer be part of Cobb County Sheriff’s Office operations.

Sheriff Craig Owens said Tuesday that the agency ended its participation in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) program. The program allows local law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of detained individuals they suspect of being in the country illegally. It does this by deputizing local officials to assist with federal immigration enforcement.

Owens, flanked by his command staff, members of activist organizations and other elected officials, said his decision marks a “historic moment for Cobb County.” Ending the program, the sheriff said, is a start of the department working to establish trust and bridge the gap with Cobb’s Latino community.

“We are here to protect and serve our community,” he said. “That’s what we are here to do and that’s what we get paid to do.”

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Critics of the 287(g) program say the screening process amounts to profiling and makes immigrant communities distrustful of law enforcement. When he served as commander of a Cobb County Police Department precinct, Owens said he saw firsthand how many immigrant families were afraid to report crimes.

“If you see brown, which is the uniform of the Sheriff’s Office, you run,” he said of the Latino community’s feelings. “If you see blue, you stay and talk because they are your friends.” The blue uniforms are the colors worn by Cobb County Police Department officers.

The program originally began to remove terrorists, as well as other violent criminals, from neighborhoods across the country. However, Owens said the program morphed into one that profiled immigrants through traffic stops, which resulted in them being deported on misdemeanor charges.

“Let me be clear: there’s a new day and a new era in Cobb County,” he said, adding that ending the program will not make Cobb County less safe.

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Cobb was the first jurisdiction in Georgia to join the program under the leadership of former Sheriff Neil Warren in 2007. Warren, in 2019, renewed the controversial program’s use at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center.

Owens said the Sheriff’s Office was not participating in roundups of suspected undocumented people, but had four deputies at the Adult Detention Center who would check the immigration status of anyone who was booked into the jail.

Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said Owens’ announcement will be celebrated for years to come because many organizations have worked to end law enforcement’s use of the program.

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She also said the program’s termination would not be possible without the work of a coalition of organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and Black Voters Matter.

“I think change has arrived and we, the people, made it happen,” she said.

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said her organization has for a decade fought to end 287(g), which she said led to racial profiling and police abuses of power.

“This is a tough-minded policy to end the 287(g) program because it was a hard-hearted policy that hurts families in our community,” Young said.

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The breakup of families led to many sleepless nights for Carlos Garcia, the new Spanish-speaking community liaison Owens has brought on to help with Latino community outreach in Cobb. Garcia, who Owens said recently became a U.S. citizen after living in the U.S. for more than 20 years, was instrumental in helping Cobb County police solve a homicide several years ago when residents in the community would not come forward with information.

Garcia, the director of the Cobb Immigrant Alliance, said 287(g) instilled fear in Cobb families who believed any interaction with police or sheriff’s deputies would lead to an inquiry of their residency status. He regularly received calls for help from families who were being separated, including children whose parents were arrested and deported.

“There were so many nights that I just couldn’t sleep,” he said. “My phone would not stop ringing.”

Francisco Javier Díaz de León, consul general of Mexico in Atlanta, said immigrants should be proud of their place of birth as well as their contributions in Cobb, Georgia and across the U.S. They should also be proud to see how their campaign to end 287(g) helped lead to the program’s termination in Cobb County, he added.

“Change happens when our immigrants make their voices heard,” he said.

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: 1,097 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

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