Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway renewed a controversial immigration partnership this week. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Gwinnett County sheriff Conway extends immigrant detention program

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway has renewed a controversial federal immigration program at the jail that seeks to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

The county partners with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the program, known as 287(g). The agreement was due to expire June 30, but ICE officials urged Conway in a letter to return a signed extension before April 30. Conway, who received the notice Monday, signed it Tuesday.

The extension will remain in effect indefinitely.

Conway was not available for an interview about his decision to extend 287(g), said Shannon Volkodav, the spokesperson for the department. But Conway said previously that he intended to continue the program as long as he was in office.

The federal program lets Gwinnett sheriff’s deputies hold foreign-born arrestees who are charged with committing local crimes and brought to the county jail. They can then be transferred to ICE for detention and possible deportation.

In 2019, there were almost 5,000 sheriff’s deputy encounters in Gwinnett as part of the program, more than any other jurisdiction, according to ICE data. Nationwide, there were nearly 25,000 encounters from agencies that participated in the program.

Conway, a Republican, is not seeking reelection this year. There are two Republicans and four Democrats seeking to replace him.

In a statement, the sheriff’s office said the program is “an important law enforcement tool that helps protect everyone in our community.”

“This enhances public safety by keeping criminals from being released back into our community,” the statement said.

Others dispute the claim.

Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said in an email that 287(g) undermines public safety and should not have been extended.

The program “perpetuates a climate of fear among immigrant communities and perpetuates racial profiling by law enforcement,” he said. Gonzalez also said continuing the 287(g) partnership does not reflect the values of the county.

Some Democratic candidates agree. Curtis Clemons, who is running for sheriff, said he would eliminate the program if elected. So did Floyd Scott, also a Democratic candidate. Both men are former Gwinnett County sheriff’s deputies and said they thought the program drove a wedge between law enforcement and Gwinnett’s many immigrant communities.

“It’s causing a lot of undocumented people who came here for a better life to be in fear,” Scott said. “They don’t want to have contact with police.”

Other candidates think the program should simply be altered. Now, people are detained and deported for misdemeanor arrests, as well as felonies. Democratic candidate Ben Haynes and Republican candidate Keith Van Nus both said they would keep the 287(g) program if elected, but focus on violent offenders.

Haynes said under the current system, some crimes aren’t prosecuted because witnesses or victims fear that they will be deported if they come forward. But he and Van Nus, who is also a former Gwinnett sheriff’s deputy, said the program is a tool that can work.

“Everything’s going to be up for review,” Van Nus said. “287(g), I kind of think it needs to stay.”

One candidate, Democrat Keybo Taylor, did not respond to requests for comment about the program.

Lou Solis, the chief deputy of operations for the sheriff’s department, said in a statement that the agreement was renewed because it had worked consistently for a decade. He said the program’s value to public safety is “priceless.”

“Anyone who would end this program is choosing to protect criminals over the people who live and work in our community,” Solis said.

Solis is also a Republican candidate for sheriff.

On the sheriff’s department’s Facebook page, where the renewal was announced, more than two dozen people expressed support for the program. They said the county’s cooperation with ICE helped keep the crime rate low and thanked the sheriff for protecting residents.

Gwinnett County commissioners don’t have any say in the sheriff’s decision and three — including Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash — did not respond to requests for comment about the continuation of the program.

Commissioner Marlene Fosque, a Democrat who had an ethics complaint filed against her by a 287(g) proponent after she organized a meeting to discuss the program, said in an email that she had nothing to say on the topic. Her colleagues dismissed the complaint last month. Commissioner Tommy Hunter, a Republican, said in a text message to The AJC said he supported Conway’s decision fully.

“He’s been in law enforcement most of my life and is an expert on what keeps a community safe,” Hunter said. “I have complete trust in his professional decisions.”

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