Aug. 27, 2010: Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Deputy D. Dean processes an inmate. Her jail participates in the federal 287(g) immigration enforcement program, which has experienced mixed results in Georgia. Vino Wong/vwong@ajc.com
Photo: Vino Wong
Photo: Vino Wong

N. Georgia sheriffs have mixed results with immigration enforcement

Bartow County Sheriff Clark Millsap signed an agreement in February of last year to team up with federal immigration authorities, saying he wanted to be more proactive in his rural North Georgia community.

Thirteen months later, his office terminated its 287(g) agreement, named after the federal law that authorizes it, without spending a dollar on staffing. The sheriff cited a personnel shortage as the reason.

No one in the county was deported through the joint effort with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during its first seven months operation in the county’s jail. Millsap’s office and ICE couldn’t provide statistics for its final six months.

In contrast, in four other North Georgia counties, an increasing number of people are being deported each year through the same jail program. Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway and his counterparts in Cobb, Hall and Whitfield counties recently confirmed for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they will renew 287(g) agreements that are expiring next month. Gwinnett alone has spent more than $15 million on the initiative since 2009.

RELATED: Gwinnett sheriff vows to renew divisive immigration program

Their experiences highlight the controversial program’s mixed results and widely varying costs in Georgia amid the Trump administration’s efforts to expand it to jails nationwide.

Authorized by Congress in 1996, the 287(g) program deputizes state and local officials to help enforce federal immigration laws in local jails and state prison systems, giving them the authority to investigate, detain and transport people facing deportation. Proponents say it helps deter illegal immigration, while critics argue such aggressive enforcement splits up immigrant families and makes them fearful of reporting crimes to police.

In 2017, Trump issued an executive order calling for an expansion of the program. Since that year, the number of 287(g) programs operating across America has grown from 42 to 80 in 21 states. Five Georgia counties and the state’s Department of Corrections participate.

Some have been more active than others. In Gwinnett, for example, 931 people were deported in the fiscal year ending last September, up by more than 400% since 2016. Cobb saw a more than 200% jump during that time frame to 354. Deportations were similarly high during the Obama administration in 2014. ICE was not able to provide details about the deportees, such as whether they had criminal records.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s counties are citing widely different taxpayer costs. Compared to Gwinnett’s multimillion dollar commitment, in Hall County, the Sheriff’s Office has assigned a sergeant and four officers to the program. Their combined annual salaries total $212,638.

Whitfield Sheriff’s Department Capt. Wes Lynch argues that the program actually saves the county money.

“For example, early in the program we were able to identify a criminal alien who had been arrested approximately 13 times, in our facility alone, over the course of about nine years,” Lynch said in an email. “This inmate was identified and removed, never to return. Given this long-term behavior of recidivism, and considering that it likely would continue to occur, this one removal likely saved the detention budget approximately $22,000 over a similar future period.”

As in Bartow, the Floyd County Sheriff’s Office and Georgia’s Department of Corrections got off to a slow start after joining the 287(g) program last year. No one was deported through their efforts between January and September of 2018, according to ICE’s figures.

Bartow Sheriff’s Office sent ICE a letter in March, explaining why it needed to stop its 287(g) program.

“We have worked diligently to try to make the program successful, but we have not been able to accomplish our goal,” Bartow Major G.M. Dover wrote in the letter. “We continually struggle to properly staff the ICE offices and get the program work done. At this time, we must concentrate on other tasks which are directly related to the proper operation of the detention facility and officer safety.”

ICE declined to comment about Bartow’s decision.

But a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform — a Washington-based organization that supports reducing immigration levels — called it “unfortunate.”

“Obviously, like any program, it needs to be managed and, where problems arise, somebody needs to be on top of it,” Ira Mehlman said. “It’s unfortunate. It sort of closes down a mechanism for the county to turn criminal aliens over to the federal government for removal.”

Bartow Commissioner Steve Taylor noted his county is home to fewer immigrants than other Georgia counties participating in the 287(g) program. Just 5% of Bartow’s population is foreign-born. In Gwinnett, that number is 25%.

Taylor added that, while the Bartow Sheriff’s Office has ended its 287(g) partnership with ICE, it continues to cooperate with the federal agency. He said the sheriff’s office took part in the recent investigation of construction company owner Juan Antonio Perez, who lived in Bartow. Federal prosecutors have accused the Mexican national of harboring unauthorized immigrants and making substantial amounts of money by underpaying them and failing to withhold federal taxes.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta applauded Bartow’s decision to discontinue its 287(g) program.

“It separates fathers from their children. It breaks up entire family units and destabilizes communities,” said Esther Lim, an organizing and civic engagement director for the nonprofit advocacy group. “We have seen a lot of that in Gwinnett specifically.”

Yet, the Bartow Sheriff’s Office indicated it could rejoin the effort.

“The 287(g) program is a GREAT program and our relationship with ICE remains strong and cooperative,” Bartow Capt. Dean Minter said in an email. “We welcome the opportunity to revisit the 287(g) program again in the future, when staffing has increased, so the program can be utilized to the fullest potential.”

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