They are among metro Atlanta sheriffs and police chiefs eager to sign on because the program would give them federal enforcement powers they don’t have now, including the authority to detain, process and transport illegal immigrants for deportation. Having the program, they said, could vastly shrink the number of illegal immigrants — both criminals and noncriminals — in their communities.
So far this year in Cherokee, for example, sheriff’s deputies have arrested 647 non-U.S. citizens, who may be in the country illegally, Garrison said. Cherokee’s jail was holding 53 of them for federal immigration officials to screen as of Tuesday, a development Garrison called a “major burden.”
Communities have many other ways to help enforce immigration laws, including participating in a fingerprint-sharing program with ICE, known as Secure Communities, which helps identify criminal immigrants. Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties participate in that program. But several local law enforcement officials said they want the 287(g) program in their jails to expedite the removal of criminal immigrants and deter others from coming into their communities.
Critics, however, fear 287(g) could lead to racial profiling and discourage immigrants from reporting crimes to police. The National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization based in Washington, released a report Friday calling on the Obama administration to scrap the program.
“It is being used as a roundup, a legal way to round up people who are not wanted in those particular counties,” said the Rev. Tracy Blagec, spokeswoman for a coalition of churches and community organizations called Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment. “And that is Latinos, primarily, at this point.”
Still, many more jurisdictions want into the program. A spokeswoman for ICE said her agency can’t accept everyone into the $68 million program, in part because of limited funding. ICE covers the costs of supervising the program, training officers and purchasing equipment. ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez told the AJC on Thursday that Cherokee and Roswell’s applications are still under consideration.
“We are working with both of these law enforcement departments and sharing information to move forward on their requests,” she said.
Roswell has applied three times since 2006. The first application was rejected, and it never got a decision for its request in 2008 to start the program in its jail, said City Police Chief Ed Williams. The third request sent in May is pending.
Nationwide, the federal government has received 207 applications from cities, counties and state agencies wishing to join the 287(g) program since it started in 2002, according to ICE statistics. Of those, 76 have been approved, including Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield counties and Georgia’s Department of Public Safety. And 64 have been rejected, including three in Georgia. Forty-eight of the applications were withdrawn and 19 are new or in the final stages of review. Two of the new requests are from Georgia.
ICE declined to identify the rejected applicants and most of those pending. On Tuesday, the AJC sent ICE a request for this information under the federal Freedom of Information Act, but has not yet received a response.
“Out of respect for them, we are not putting that out there,” Gonzalez said. “They are clearly at liberty to put that out there and release that information, but we leave that up to local law enforcement agencies.”
Applicants provide information about their communities in a 13-page document. Gonzalez said selections are based on whether the participation is likely to be sustainable and beneficial. ICE officials in Washington work with local ICE officials to make selections.
Politics at play?
Interest in the 287(g) program breaks down along political lines in metro Atlanta. Counties that voted for Republican John McCain in the last presidential election have either applied for the program or are already using it, including Cherokee, Cobb, Forsyth and Gwinnett. Counties that went for Democrat Barack Obama in that election have not sought to join 287(g), including Fulton and DeKalb. Atlanta also has not applied.
DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown said he is concerned he doesn’t have the staff to pull it off, citing 80 openings for detention officers. He said he would have to send 15 to 20 deputies for weeks of outside training. “That would just cripple me right now,” Brown said.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office does not plan to apply, asserting that illegal immigrants make up less than 2 percent of the inmate population.
Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said he questions those statistics and disagrees with Fulton County’s decision.
About a third of the inmates in Roswell’s 55-bed jail last year were foreign-born and could not provide a Social Security number, city police said. Wood said the county sheriff’s decision not to pursue 287(g) is one of the reasons he supports carving a new Milton County out of Fulton.
Question of numbers
In Forsyth County, Sheriff Ted Paxton said his office applied for the program in 2007 and was rejected the following year. He said Forsyth’s jail is full, forcing the county to house nearly 200 inmates at other jails. Up to 15 percent of the prisoners in the county jail could be in the country illegally, he said.
“The federal government has failed the citizens of this country with securing our borders. There is no denying that,” Paxton said. “We are willing to step up and we are willing to help out. Yet, we are turned away.”
Paxton and others say the problem lies with Congress for not funding the 287(g) program adequately. The program’s budget, however, has grown through the years, from $5 million in fiscal year 2006 to $68 million this fiscal year.
Since 2007, 14,027 illegal immigrants who have been charged or convicted of crimes have been identified through the program in Georgia, according to ICE. Of those, 8,565 have been deported or have left the country voluntarily. The rest are still serving their sentences or going through the deportation process.
What’s less clear is the program’s success in deporting violent criminals, including those convicted of major drug offenses, national security crimes and murder, manslaughter, rape, kidnapping and robbery. ICE has not kept statistics on which crimes these individuals have committed.
In a critical report released in March, the Homeland Security Department’s Office of the Inspector General said it reviewed arrest information for a sample of 280 inmates identified through the program at four unnamed sites. Of those, only 26, or 9 percent, were charged with the most serious crimes.
“These results,” the report said, “do not show that 287(g) resources have been focused on aliens who pose the greatest risk to the public.”
How 287(g) works
The 287(g) program got its name for its section number in the federal Immigration and Nationality Act. Started in 2002, it forms new partnerships, through written agreements, granting local law enforcement officers the power to enforce federal immigration laws.
For example, local police and sheriff’s deputies could be given the power to question people about whether they are in the country legally and issue arrest warrants, prepare charging documents and detain and transport criminals for immigration violations.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement trains local officers to perform these duties and provides some computer equipment. Those costs add up to $20,252 per officer, according to a Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report.
How does it work?
When an inmate is booked into a participating jail, officers screen them to determine if they are in the country illegally. Clues to their immigration status include where they were born and if they can speak English. If the officers determine they are illegal immigrants, they could draw up documents to transfer them to ICE for deportation, whether they have been convicted of their charges or not. Before they are deported, however, inmates must serve whatever sentences they might have for convictions of their crimes committed in the U.S.