Georgia law officers have been among the nation’s busiest when it comes to processing people for deportation through a program that gives local officials immigration enforcement powers, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of public records.
Since fiscal year 2006, 14,831 people have been “removed” — deported or allowed to voluntarily leave the country — through Georgia’s five 287(g) programs, named after the section of federal immigration law that authorizes them. Georgia ranks fifth among states based on total removals through this type of operation.
Proponents say the programs help shrink the burden illegal immigrants put on the state’s tax-funded resources, including jails. Critics say they distract police from more important crime-fighting duties, promote racial profiling and ensnare many people who have committed minor traffic offenses.
The AJC’s analysis comes as the Obama administration is proposing to cut a quarter of its $68 million budget for 287(g) operations nationwide and eliminate the least productive ones — in part because of the national rollout of a different program based on fingerprint screening.
Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican state lawmakers, however, have been pushing for the expansion of 287(g) programs in Georgia, arguing they are effective in fighting illegal immigration. Meanwhile, a group of immigrants and attorneys is suing in federal court to shut down several 287(g) programs in Georgia, arguing they are unconstitutional.
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The AJC’s analysis shows the program is being used unevenly between county and state officers. Combined, the programs operating out of Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield counties have triggered the vast majority of Georgia removals: 14,815.
Georgia state troopers and other state law enforcement officers participate in a similar program that has prompted only 16 removals over the last six years. That is the 7th lowest number among 20 such “task force” programs nationwide, federal records show.
Georgia’s overall ranking for removals — fifth in the nation — hews closely to its sixth-place rank among states for the estimated number of illegal immigrants living within its borders. A federal Homeland Security Department report released last month put that number at 440,000.
Started in 2002, the 287(g) program involves written agreements granting local and state law enforcement officers the power to enforce federal immigration laws. For example, sheriff’s deputies may be given the power to question people about whether they are in the country legally and to serve arrest warrants, prepare charging documents and detain and transport criminals for immigration violations.
Experts say the differences between the county and state law enforcement roles could explain the wide disparity in deportations.
State officers go on patrol, interact with fewer people and focus on stopping specific crimes such as identify theft, drug trafficking, money laundering, human smuggling and other violent crimes.
Meanwhile, sheriff’s deputies in Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield have been questioning thousands of people as they come into county jails.
When the AJC asked state officials about the low numbers of deportations tied to their program, they pointed to “manpower issues” and long distances officers would have to travel to transport suspected illegal immigrants to federal immigration detention centers in the state.
The biggest is in Lumpkin, more than 140 miles south of downtown Atlanta.
“Troopers are assigned this responsibility as an addition to the routine duties,” Georgia State Patrol Lt. Kermit Stokes, who helps coordinate the Georgia Department of Public Safety’s 287(g) program, wrote in an email. “Due to manpower issues, they are not able to concentrate solely on immigration enforcement.”
The taxpayer cost of Georgia’s program is unclear. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials could not give a figure, though they have provided training and supervision for the programs here. Twenty-two state patrolmen and Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Department of Driver Services officials have received training.
While the federal government plans to cut 287(g) funding, Deal last May signed into law anti-illegal immigration legislation that seeks to encourage local law enforcement agencies to participate in the program. A spokesman for the governor said he still favors the program and “does not want to see it cut.”
Last month, ICE director John Morton told Congress the government is not proposing to cut funding for the 287(g) program that operates in jails across the nation, including those in Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield counties.
Several other Georgia counties or cities have applied to join the program but have been rejected. ICE, which pays for training and oversight, says it has not had money to approve all requests even before the pending budget cuts. It also bases approvals on various factors such as the number of foreign-born inmates in a county jail.
Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that advocates tighter immigration controls, suggested election-year politics is at play in the decision to cut 287(g) funding.
“To me,” said Vaughan, who has written extensively about 287(g), “it seems that the Obama administration is cutting back on these because the task force programs are the ones that the advocates for illegal aliens most love to hate.”
ICE says the cuts are prompted by national activation of the Secure Communities program, in which jail inmates’ fingerprints are used to screen for illegal immigrants. It calls that program “more consistent, efficient and cost-effective.” ICE also says the cuts will be used to pare 287(g) programs that have shown scant results.
The fingerprint program is now operating statewide in Georgia.
Vaughan disagrees with the assertion it is more cost-effective. In jurisdictions that participate in both programs, she wrote in a recent blog, the 287(g) officers “find about twice the number of removable aliens than Secure Communities, and faster.”
Cobb County’s 287(g) program is one of the busiest in the nation, prompting 6,779 removals since fiscal year 2007 — eighth among more than 60 programs nationwide. Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren credited his staff for doing “an outstanding job” with the program.
“Deportation is not a goal or the responsibility of the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office,” he said in a prepared statement. “Accurate identification of those taken into custody and ultimately released back into our community is a legal duty and priority in this agency.”
Cobb’s program has drawn a legal attack, however. Two Mexican citizens and one Salvadoran citizen are suing county, state and ICE officials in federal court, arguing the 287(g) programs are unconstitutional and should be scrapped. They also seek class-action status for their lawsuit.
A U.S. district court judge dismissed the original complaint, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing because they could not “allege an imminent threat of future harm.” The plaintiffs are appealing.
One plaintiff is Corina Garcia-Albarran, a citizen of Mexico and a Cobb County resident. Cobb police arrested her on a shoplifting charge in March 2010 and booked her into the county jail, where she was screened through the 287(g) program.
She said she entered the country illegally in 2004 to find work and support her family in her native country. She denied she was shoplifting, and the charge was ultimately dismissed. She is now fighting deportation.
Her attorney said she is seeking asylum in the United States because a violent drug cartel has targeted her family in Mexico.
She also worries about being separated from her 10-month-old son — a U.S.-born citizen — and his father, a native of El Salvador with legal status.
In an interview, Garcia-Albarran said in Spanish through an interpreter that her family would be divided if she is forced to return to Mexico.
“It’s bad,” she said of the 287(g) program, “because a lot of women are deported and they have to leave their children here because they are U.S. citizens.”
Since fiscal year 2006, 22,746 people have been put into deportation proceedings through federal 287(g) immigration enforcement programs operating in Georgia. Of those, 14,831 have been deported or allowed to leave the country voluntarily. Here’s a breakdown:
Number processed for deportation and number deported or voluntarily departed
Cobb 10,209 6,779
Gwinnett 6,823 4,122
Hall 3,525 2,506
Whitfield 2,150 1,408
of Public Safety 39 16
Number deported or voluntarily departed, by state:
1. Califiornia 45,090
2. Arizona 42,266
3. North Carolina 17,560
4. Texas 15,280
5. Georgia 14,831