Activists have called on the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners to oppose the county sheriff’s participation in a controversial immigration program.
Known as the 287(g) program, it deputizes state and local officials with certain powers of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. Sheriff Butch Conway has hailed the program as a way to reduce and prevent crime. But opponents have said the program leads to racial profiling by law enforcement and fear of police in immigrant communities.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta held a press conference Tuesday with local state representatives and immigrant Gwinnett residents in opposition to the program. Those who spoke, including Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Clark, said the county’s participation in the program makes immigrant communities distrustful of police and afraid to call authorities when they are the victim of a crime.
“Victims of violence and sexual assault should not be more afraid of the police than they are of their attackers,” Clark said.
Last month, Conway re-authorized his office’s participation in the 287(g) program. In Gwinnett, specially trained sheriff’s deputies check the immigration status of jail inmates and ensure those who should be held for federal authorities are. Local charges and sentences must be addressed before an inmate is taken into federal custody.
Over the past decade, Conway's deputies working in the Gwinnett County jail have questioned more than 52,000 arrestees about their immigration status. Nearly 15,000 of those questioned have been handed over to federal immigration authorities as part of the controversial program.
Gwinnett is one of five Georgia counties that participate in the program, and one of 80 nationwide. The Georgia Department of Corrections also participates.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta has collected the signatures of more than 600 people asking the Board of Commissioners to pass a resolution opposing the program and to vote against the re-authorization if they have the option, said Sadiyah Ahmad, a policy advocate with the organization.
The commission does not get a vote on the re-authorization; the sheriff alone makes that decision. The only option commissioners have would be to reject the sheriff’s budget proposal, which contains funding for 287(g). The budget would have to be rejected as a whole, because the commission does not get a line-item veto.
"The county Board of Commissioners has the right to set the sheriff's total budget. We have no right to tell him how to spend it," Board Chairman Charlotte Nash said. "The only way to ensure that no dollars are spent on any particular program would be to set his budget to zero. And I can assure you the courts would not view that favorably, because we have constitutional responsibility to fund his operations."
Four residents opposing the program spoke at Tuesday’s commission meeting, asking members to reject Conway’s proposed budged because of the 287(g) re-authorization. While program opponents have pushed for the commission to force the sheriff's hand by cutting his budget by the amount used to run the 287(g) program — around $2 million annually in recent years — Nash said doing so would invite a messy legal battle.
In addition, it would be hard to justify cutting the sheriff's funding at a time when the number of jail inmates is increasing. The county courthouse is also being expanded, which will require more staff from the sheriff’s department.
"Cutting his budget in the context of all of those kind of things where it's clear that he's going to need additional dollar figures, I think that's going to be very hard to defend," Nash said. "Even if a majority of the board were willing to try to take that approach."
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