Will mobilized Hispanic voters in Cobb shift sheriff’s race?

Voter registration among Hispanic residents of Cobb is up, standing out even compared to an overall increase in new minority voters.

“We’re living under such a hostile political environment against immigrants in general,” said Carlos Garcia of the Pro-Immigrant Alliance of Cobb County. That’s particularly true in the race for president, he said.

“We feel that threat coming from Donald Trump especially,” Garcia said of the Republican candidate.

Minority voter registration in Cobb increased 30 percent over this time last year, while Hispanic voter registration shot up 46 percent over the same period, according to data from the Secretary of State.

Garcia hopes that mobilizing Latino voters for the presidential race will also have an effect on down-ballot contests, including Cobb County’s race for sheriff.

Sheriff Neil Warren will face off against Democratic challenger Gregory Gilstrap for a fourth time in the general election this November. The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the running the county jail, serving warrants and providing security at the courthouse.

Neither Warren nor Gilstrap would agree to be interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this article.

On their respective campaign websites, Gilstrap, a lieutenant with the Morehouse College Police Department, has positioned himself as the reformer who will “restore trust” between law enforcement and the community. Warren continues to taut his credentials as one of “America’s toughest sheriffs on illegal immigration.”

Garcia said his organization is urging people to vote against Warren because of his hard-line stance, but added that it cannot endorse Gilstrap because he has not responded to efforts to reach him.

“Officially, it’s hard for us to endorse a candidate that we really don’t know what is his agenda, but … at the end of the day, it will be better than Neil Warren,” he said. “We’re ready for a change.”

Kerwin Swint, head of the Political Science Department at KSU, said historically Warren has enjoyed broad support, and that his reelection is more likely than not.

Warren’s positions on immigration “have been so stark in the past,” Swint said. “It may be that his rhetoric is not as strong as it has been in the past, but I can’t say that that’s because of some sort of feeling of heading toward a tipping point (demographically). It’s possible. I just don’t see any real evidence of that.”

The Hispanic community, small but growing, could influence the outcome in a close race if Latinos were to vote as a bloc, Swint said. Hispanics or Latinos made up 12.8 percent of the population of Cobb in 2015, up from 7.7 percent in 2000.

In 2007, Cobb County, under Warren’s leadership, became the first jurisdiction in Georgia to sign up for the 287g program, in which local deputies are authorized to enforce immigration law.

Warren has been an outspoken supporter of the controversial program, which received national attention in 2010 when deportation proceedings were started against Kennesaw State University student Jessica Colotl. Colotl was arrested for driving without a license and admitted to authorities that she was in the country illegally.

The student’s supporters argued that the program should be used to take dangerous criminals off the streets, not people like Colotl, who entered the country with her parents as a child. Charges were eventually dropped against Colotl.

Critics say the program encourages racial profiling and drives a wedge between law enforcement and immigrant communities, discouraging witnesses or victims of crimes from coming forward.

District Attorney Vic Reynolds, a Warren supporter, said he understands the arguments both for and against local enforcement of immigration law, placing failures in the system ultimately at the feet of the federal government.

“Sometimes (Warren’s policies) can be interpreted as being tough on people who are not here legally, but I think we tend to lose sight of the fact that either we’re going to be a nation of law or we’re not going to be,” Reynolds said.

Garcia emphasized that violating immigration laws is a civil offense, not a criminal one, and therefore should not fall under the sheriff’s purview.

A spokesman for Warren said the Sheriff’s Office’s current 287g agreement with ICE was signed in June and expires in 2019. He also provided numbers of persons that were in custody due to criminal charges and were later released to ICE. Those numbers show a steady decline from 3,180 in 2008, the first year of the program, to 154 in 2015.

“… Cobb County has a long standing tradition of working together, both community and law enforcement,” Sheriff Warren said in a statement to the AJC. “Participating in the federal 287g program has enabled our community to remove dangerous criminals that often prey on our most vulnerable residents. I remain committed to working closely with local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies to protect Cobb County.”