Gwinnett sheriff extends controversial immigration program

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway in his office at the Gwinnett County jail on Thursday, April 18, 2019. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway in his office at the Gwinnett County jail on Thursday, April 18, 2019. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway has extended his office's participation in the controversial immigration program known as 287(g) by one year, he said in a surprise Tuesday afternoon announcement.

The extension of the existing agreement comes a few weeks before its three-year term was set to expire. A sheriff’s office spokeswoman said Conway was recently notified that a new memorandum of agreement, which was due to be addressed in June, was “undergoing revision.”

As a result, Immigration and Customs Enforcement offered the option to extend the current agreement until June 30, 2020, Deputy Shannon Volkodav said.

“The 287(g) program is an effective tool that helps reduce crime and save money,” Conway said in a statement. “I see the continued benefits of having this program in our county and will continue to support it as long as I’m in office.”

An ICE spokesman confirmed the extension.

The 287(g) program deputizes state and local officials with certain powers of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. In Gwinnett -- whose population is 25% immigrants -- that involves specially trained deputies checking the immigration status of arrestees and making sure they’re held for federal authorities when appropriate.

Thousands of Gwinnett detainees have been deported by ICE since the sheriff’s office joined the program in 2009, making it one of the most productive arrangements in the country.

Five Georgia counties  -- Gwinnett, Cobb, Floyd, Hall and Whitfield --  participate in the program, as does the state Department of Corrections. There are 80 participating jurisdictions nationwide.

Proponents of the program say it makes communities safer and saves money by removing repeat offenders.

Critics say it makes immigrant communities less safe by discouraging them from reporting crimes, and that it primarily results in the removal of low-level offenders like those arrested for traffic violations.

“He’s out of sync with Gwinnett County voters,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “His action is disgraceful and it further will diminish public safety in Gwinnett County.”

Immigrant advocates had renewed their push for Gwinnett to end participation in 287(g) even before Conway announced his intentions to extend the program when it came up for renewal this summer. Conway’s announcement came on the same day that a group of advocates attended their latest Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners meeting to urge the commission to end the program.

The commission has no vote on the program but could, in theory, cut the sheriff’s office’s budget. Over the years, the commission has allocated around $15 million for administration of the 287(g) program.

About 18 people spoke against 287(g).  They included state Rep. Gregg Kennard, a Democrat from Lawrenceville.

“Once the Bible says to love your neighbor,” Kennard said. “Thirty-seven times it says to love the stranger.”

Three people spoke in favor of 287(g) during Tuesday’s meeting, saying they supported Conway’s efforts to keep their community safer. The Gwinnett Republican Party had encouraged supporters via Facebook to attend the meeting and “support our law enforcement officers and the rule of law.”

Conway, a Republican who has been sheriff since 1996, has not said whether he’ll run for re-election in 2020.

The two Democrats who have announced plans to run have said they would end the county’s 287(g) participation.

“We’re really disappointed with the sheriff’s decision to extend the contract, and again we don’t feel like this is representative of the current situation in Gwinnett -- and we definitely don’t feel like it’s the future of the county,” said Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

Conway has remained loyal to 287(g) even as Gwinnett’s population has grown both more diverse and more accepting of liberal policies.

“Sheriff Butch Conway brought the 287(g) program to Gwinnett County in an effort to promote public safety, lower recidivism and help reduce the jail population to save taxpayers money,” his office’s announcement said. “The program accomplishes both and Sheriff Conway’s commitment to continue the program is unwavering.”