‘There’s less fear’: Metro Atlanta immigrants feel safer with new sheriffs

Deputy Field Office Director, Joe Sifuentez (left) and an unidentified ICE agent (right) take into custody Jose Serrano in 2017,  in Austell. The painter has a criminal history and a family. He was taken to ICE where he was processed and incarcerated. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
Deputy Field Office Director, Joe Sifuentez (left) and an unidentified ICE agent (right) take into custody Jose Serrano in 2017, in Austell. The painter has a criminal history and a family. He was taken to ICE where he was processed and incarcerated. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)

A year has passed since Cobb and Gwinnett counties withdrew from a partnership with ICE

As recently as two years ago, a hotline operated by an Atlanta-based immigrant rights nonprofit was ringing off the hook. Many of those calling the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) were seeking help because an encounter with police had landed a loved one in jail, placing them at risk of deportation.

Starting in 2021, those calls slowed to a trickle.

Adelina Nicholls, GLAHR’s executive director, says the newfound peace is the result, in part, of changes in immigration enforcement from federal authorities. But new policing patterns at the local level are also playing a role.

In January 2021, newly elected Democratic sheriffs in Gwinnett and Cobb counties ended their offices’ participation in a federal program known as 287(g), ushering in an era of stability for the undocumented population living in or transiting through metro Atlanta. The program deputized local law enforcement to act as immigration agents: detaining unauthorized immigrants and turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

With 287(g) no longer in force, local jail officials have stopped systemically checking the immigration status of individuals arrested for a variety of crimes – including minor traffic violations – and sharing that information with immigration officials to initiate deportation proceedings.

The sheriffs’ decision to withdraw from 287(g) came on the heels of sustained activism from local immigrant groups like GLAHR, which mobilized against the program since its arrival to metro Atlanta in 2007. Critics described the sheriffs’ position as too soft on crime.

“This was a demand from communities of color,” Nicholls said. “We spent over 10 years fighting 287(g) in both these counties.”

In 2019 and 2020, the Gwinnett and Cobb county jails accounted for more contacts with ICE through 287(g) than anywhere else in the country, according to ICE data.

In a January 2021 press conference announcing the end of the program (and featuring a mariachi performance), Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens argued the policy change would make the county safer, and restore immigrant communities’ trust in law enforcement.

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

Credit: Christina Matacotta

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

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Combined ShapeCaption
Mariachi America plays to celebrate the end of Cobb County's participation in the Federal 287(G) Program at a press conference on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, at the Cobb County Sheriff's Office in Marietta, Georgia. The Federal 287(G) Program, ended by newly elected Cobb Sheriff Craig Owens, 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 year later, Jerry Gonzalez thinks some public safety benefits have started to come to pass. Gonzalez is head of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO). Before Cobb and Gwinnett withdrew from 287(g), he says he frequently received calls from victims of crimes in Hispanic communities, who wondered whether it would be safe to call the police. Those calls have ceased.

“I think that’s a good sign. It’s a good sign for public safety,” he said. “When you have a segment of the community that isn’t engaging with the police, it makes all of us less safe because those are extra eyes and ears on the ground that cops don’t have access to.”

A wave of relief

Immigrant advocates say that, in a year that has continued to be racked with pandemic-related disruptions, the withdrawal from 287(g) in metro Atlanta has been an important source of solace for many immigrant families.

That relief has been widespread partly because of how large the undocumented population is in Cobb and Gwinnett. According to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, Gwinnett County is home to 77,000 unauthorized immigrants, or roughly a fifth of the total undocumented population in the state. There are 39,000 unauthorized immigrants in Cobb.

“People have been able to breathe easier,” Nicholls said. “They say it’s a relief, that they can leave their homes with less stress, knowing they will be able to come back at the end of the day and have dinner with their family and see their kids.”

According to Nicholls, scaling back the threat of deportation hasn’t necessarily triggered a change of behavior. Unauthorized immigrants aren’t more visible now relative to the 287(g) years because they could never afford to remain in hiding.

“Our community was already integrated, because at the end of the day people had to go out to work, and they had to take their kids to school. But you knew you were rolling the dice,” she said. “What changed is that people now have more emotional stability.”

Sheriffs change strategies

A year into his decision to exit 287(g), Sheriff Owens in Cobb County says his department has started to notice and benefit from “much better communication with the Hispanic community.” But he added that the program’s legacy of compromised trust with immigrants will take time to overcome.

“Trust is not given overnight. We have to earn that trust back because we haven’t had that trust in so many years in Cobb,” he said.

Aside from improving community relations, halting their partnerships with ICE presented an opportunity for Cobb and Gwinnett’s sheriffs to funnel the millions of dollars that it cost to operate 287(g) into other crime-fighting initiatives.

When Gwinnett Sheriff Keybo Taylor made his department’s exit from 287(g) official in January 2021, he also announced the creation of two new programs to target gang activity and human trafficking.

A community recovers

Rafael Navarro, an immigrant from Colombia, has spent over 20 years working as a journalist in Georgia’s Spanish-language media ecosystem, currently serving as editor-in-chief of El Nuevo Georgia. He says the news of Cobb and Gwinnett counties ending their participation in 287(g) was among El Nuevo’s most clicked-on stories in early 2021.

“The reaction from the people was extraordinary,” he said.

According to Navarro, the story was so big because 287(g) impacted the lives of scores of Atlanta-area immigrants regardless of immigration status, including many business owners.

In the wake of Hall County joining the 287(g) program, for instance, a Spanish-language publication Navarro helped run in Gainesville had to shutter.

“Our community in Gainesville got dismembered. People left in droves … And we lost too many clients,” he said. “Something like the 287(g) program doesn’t just affect the people without papers. It affects everyone.”

Looking back on the first year that has passed since Sheriffs Taylor and Owens stopped their departments’ collaboration with ICE, Navarro says progress has been made, though some wounds might take longer to heal.

“In the past year, our community has been able to take a break. We’ve been able to rest … There’s less fear now, that’s a fact,” he said. But “I believe that to this day no one has been able to take full stock of the harm that’s been caused in our community.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.