Georgia lawmakers at work in February 2016 on the The House floor. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Trump’s crackdown on immigration focuses new attention on Clayton

In November 2014, the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office announced it would no longer honor the federal government’s request to hold detainees facing possible deportation beyond their scheduled release date on local charges.

The decision, in effect, made Clayton Georgia’s sole sanctuary community. Clayton’s policy largely went unnoticed and unchallenged during the past couple of years. But this week, the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants has focused new atttention on Clayton’s claim, which is also at odds with state law.

News that Clayton may be a safe harbor for undocumented workers broadsided local leaders who now are scrambling to determine whether the county is, in fact, a sanctuary community. Sanctuary cities and communities are illegal in Georgia.

A year ago, state lawmakers tightened up their law on so-called sanctuary cities by requiring local governments to certify they’re cooperating with federal immigration officials in order to get state funding. The state has banned local governments from having sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants since 2008.

Along those lines, Clayton faces the prospect of losing federal money as well. President Trump has vowed to cut funding to “sanctuary city” communities in an effort to tighten national immigration laws.

We’re trying to get to the bottom of this. We need to find out where this (designation) originated from and correct it and move on from there,” said Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner. “We can’t afford to lose any money.”

Clayton officials have sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security inquiring about Clayton’s status as a sanctuary community, Turner said.

The controversy surfaced this week after Clayton officials learned the county is the only community in Georgia listed on The Center for Immigration Studies national list of sanctuary cities. The center is a Washington, D.C. group that advocates for restricting immigration.

“I was very surprised. I don’t know where that came from,” Turner said. He noted that officials in the sheriff’s office told him they were “not aware of ever claiming to be a sanctuary city.”

A spokeswoman with Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill’s office did not return phone calls or respond to an email about the issue. At the time of the announcement, Hill’s office said it would not hold detainees beyond their release date and that federal authorities would need a judicial warrant in order for Clayton to hold them longer.

Sanctuary City is a term applied to local governments that don’t fully cooperate with federal authorities. The communities often do not hold undocumented immigrants for pending federal violations and in many cases local governments will not inquire about the person’s immigration status.

Elements of "sanctuary cities," an unofficial term, can take several forms.

In metro Atlanta, different counties have taken different approaches to dealing with the federal government requests when it comes to immigration issues. Some hold the feds at arms-length when it comes to detainees while other extend a hand in helping with immigration enforcement.

DeKalb, for instance, notifies the federal government of pending releases “but we wouldn’t hold a person beyond their release date,” said Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cynthia Williams.

That said, Williams added, “We don’t consider ourselves a sanctuary city.”

DeKalb instituted its policy in December 2014 - a month after Clayton’s.

Conversely, sheriff’s departments in Cobb and Gwinnett are part of what’s called the “287(g)” program which gives them the ability to perform certain duties on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. Gwinnett has been part of the 287(g) program since it began in 2009. It enables deputies to identify and place detainers on illegal immigrant criminals for ICE, according to Gwinnett Sheriff’s spokeswoman Shannon Volkodav.

“In my opinion, a true sanctuary city is one that doesn’t share information that’s obtained in the course of the jailing or booking process,” said Jessica Stern, who owns The CrImmigration Firm. That information, Stern said, would include addresses as well as dates and places of birth.

Stern said since 2014 she has defended about a dozen “noncitizens” — undocumented immigrants as well as permanent residents with green cards — who had arrests or convictions in Clayton that triggered possible deportation. None were deported.

“They released my clients when they were supposed to be released on local charges,” Stern said of Clayton. “They didn’t play hide-and-seek games waiting on ICE to see what they would do.”

Stern said it was a stretch to label Clayton a sanctuary community.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have Clayton singled out in comparison to other counties,” she saidStern agrees with law enforcement agencies that stand up to federal authorities.

“They are wanting to see probable cause as a basis for why they should hold people (longer),” Stern said. “Sheriffs are getting sued for holding people longer than they’re supposed to be held and they have had to pay damages because of it.”

The Center for Immigration Studies compiles its list of sanctuary cities using information gleaned from ICE, which comes under the Department of Homeland Security, the center’s spokeswoman Marguerite Telford said. The list was updated last month.

An estimated 300 sanctuary cities and counties rejected more than 17,000 detention requests from ICE between Jan. 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015, according to the center.

“There’s a human costs to these sanctuary policies because the inevitable results is that criminal aliens who should be deported are released back on to the streets to commit more crimes,” Telford said. “Too many people have died and been raped because people have not been held.”

The July 1, 2015 death of Kathryn Steinle, a San Francisco woman killed by a Mexican national with a lengthy criminal record who had been deported five times, became a flashpoint in the debate over immigration reform.

Trump cited the Steinle case during his presidential bid and some say it served as a lightening rod for his recent orders.

Stern believes Trump’s actions are an effort to get buy-in from local law enforcement such as sheriff’s departments to act on behalf of the federal government because there’s not enough money or manpower for the federal government to carry out immigration enforcement duties.

“There’s going to be more pressure on sheriffs than ever,” Stern said.

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