Intent on fulfilling his campaign promise to crack down on illegal immigration, President Donald Trump is counting on local law enforcement agencies to assume a more significant role.
But some Atlanta-area police are saying no thanks.
In Georgia, four county sheriff’s departments — Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield — are already taking part in the 287 (g) program, named after the federal law that authorizes it. Seeking greater participation, the new administration has revived a controversial part of the program that trains officers on the street to determine immigration status during an arrest and not just after, in lock-up, as had been the case.
So far, interest among metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies has been tepid and reveals a split in the policing community. While some see immigration enforcement as a natural extension of their duties pursuing law breakers, others believe it will alienate a growing segment of the population whose cooperation is needed to solve crimes.
Generally speaking, the program has two parts. One allows local law enforcement to check a person’s immigration status after they are already in jail. If they are in the country unlawfully they can be held until federal immigration officials pick them up. The second part - which Trump wants to reinstate - would essentially deputize police going about their daily activities to question and arrest individuals they believe may have violated federal immigration laws.
“I wouldn’t expect to see many (police departments) sign up, at least in Georgia,” said Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan, president of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “Our role is building positive relationships with the community. Immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are victimized by crime at a higher rate. We want them to cooperate with us.”
Georgia is conservative-leaning state that has embraced tough measures cracking down on illegal immigration.
And supporters of the law enforcement program say it reduces the burden illegal immigrants place on public schools and other taxpayer-funded resources. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issues a detainer on anyone not here legally, that person can be transported to a federal facility.
ICE touts the program as a “tremendous benefit to public safety” by facilitating cooperation between local and federal officers which helps them better identify and remove criminal aliens.
Cops on the street, however, say acting as immigration enforcer can compromise their primary objective.
“We’re interested in solving crimes and we want to hear from people regardless of their race, creed, religion,” said Cobb Police Sgt. Dana Pierce. But 287 (g) has kept certain populations, namely Latinos, from reporting crimes for fear it could lead to their deportation, he said.
“They are hesitant or afraid to come forward,” Pierce said. “That perception of the police is bothersome to us.”
President Trump announced his intentions to “expand and revitalize” the 287(g) partnerships last August during a campaign appearance in Phoenix.
“Both of these programs have been recklessly gutted by this administration,” he said, referring to the two components, during and after an arrest, of 287 (g). “And those were programs that worked.”
Thirty seven agencies, all sheriff’s offices, in 16 states currently participate, according to ICE. Five signed on this year. ICE will not say how many agencies have applied.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked several local police departments whether they would be partnering with the federal enforcement arm. Of those that responded — including Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Dunwoody and Roswell police — none expressed interest in applying.
The Fulton Sheriff’s Office hasn’t signed up because, “There just aren’t a lot of illegal immigrants to justify it,” said spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan. “Other jurisdictions seem to have more contact than this county.”
DeKalb Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cynthia Williams said the county was unaware of Trump’s executive order on 287 (g). Incidentally, DeKalb and Clayton’s sheriff’s offices were among more than 100 local law enforcement agencies, according to a presidential report issued Monday, that are limiting cooperation with federal deportation officers by refusing requests to from ICE to hold inmates for an additional 48 hours beyond when they would otherwise be released. This provides ICE enough time to place the detainees in custody for likely deportation.
Clayton won’t honor such detainers unless ICE first presents a “judicially issued warrant authorizing detention,” ICE said in a statement. DeKalb Sheriff Jeffrey Mann said “federal case law has determined that detaining inmates beyond lawful release without sufficient probable cause or a judicial warrant from ICE is a violation of constitutional law.”
Cherokee and Forsyth counties had both previously sought admission into the program under the Obama administration and were rejected. Cherokee County told the AJC they were currently not participating and declined to say if that was subject to change. Forsyth County did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Statewide, there’s much less resistance to partnering with ICE. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, past president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said he expects more departments will apply to join the 287 (g) program.
“There will be interest in counties that have a significant crime problem because of illegal aliens,” Sills said. “I don’t. It’s just not worth my limited resources. But if I was the sheriff of Hall County, I’d definitely be interested in doing this.”
Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway has been one of 287 (g)’s biggest cheerleaders. When the program was renewed last summer the sheriff’s office said it had questioned nearly 40,000 inmates about their immigration status and placed detainers for ICE on 13,346 people since 2009.
“President Trump’s recent executive order simply enforces. immigration laws that were established in 1952,” said Gwinnett Sheriff’s spokeswoman Shannon Volkodav. Conway was unavailable for comment.
“There is no reason for anyone, legal immigrant or not, to hesitate to call for law enforcement services when needed,” Volkodav said. “A person’s immigration status is only screened if they are charged with a crime and brought to jail. Our deputies do not have the authority nor the technology to screen the immigration status of anyone outside the jail. They are committed to assisting anyone who needs their service, regardless of immigration status.”
Regardless, the fear among Gwinnett’s immigrant community is real, said David Schaefer, director of policy and advocacy for the Atlanta office of the Latin American Association.
“They don’t know who they can trust,” Schaefer said. “It’s getting people off the street, we’re just not sure it’s the right people.”
Of the unauthorized immigrants detained in Gwinnett, roughly 7,000 were detained on traffic violations.
“This wasn’t what the program was designed to do,” Schaefer said. The focus of the program was supposed to be violent crime.”
Activists for immigrant rights argue it indiscriminately sweeps up low-level offenders and breaks up families.
Pointing to the participation of only four of Georgia’s 159 counties, Schaefer said, “If it was such a great product, why aren’t more people buying it?”
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