Gwinnett program results in 1,400 deportations

A controversial program to identify illegal immigrants in the Gwinnett County Jail has been in operation a little more than a year, and officials say the program already is saving money and bed space.

So far, deputies have identified 3,034 inmates who were in the United States illegally, about half of whom ultimately were removed from the country after immigration proceedings.

"I'm very pleased with the program so far," Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said. "It has saved the county millions of dollars."

As part of the county's participation in a local-federal partnership called the 287(g) program, which officially began in November 2009, 18 sheriff's deputies were trained to enforce certain federal immigration laws. Inmates suspected of being in the country illegally are turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after their cases are disposed of. ICE then will initiate deportation proceedings against them. The detainees still have the opportunity to go before an immigration judge to plead their case.

Statistics offer an interesting snapshot of the types of offenders the program netted in its first year:

  • Many offenders had committed serious and violent crimes, including aggravated assault (73), rape (28), aggravated child molestation (24) and felony drug charges (267).

  • They came from countries far and near, like Jamaica (11), India (3), Germany (2) and Brazil (5). However, the majority of the offenders hailed from Latin American countries, such as Mexico (2,053), Honduras (276), Guatemala (270) and El Salvador (169).
  • 715 of the offenders, or 24 percent of the Gwinnett inmates detained for ICE, had returned to the United States after already being removed from the country at least once.

Jail statistics also do little to dispel one of the main complaints about such local law enforcement partnerships with ICE. Despite the 287(g) program's stated goal of deporting criminal illegal immigrants who pose a danger to public safety, it often nets minor offenders. About 470 inmates who were detained for ICE were charged with driving without a license, and 1,264 were charged with some other traffic violation. That's almost half the total number of detainees from Gwinnett.

Conway said that, per ICE policy, inmates are classified under a three-level priority scheme depending on the seriousness of the offense they committed. However, so far Gwinnett has not released any inmates suspected of being illegal immigrants because they committed a low-level offense.  That's because ICE has had enough bed space to accommodate them all, Conway said.

A total of 1,408 inmates ultimately were removed from the country after being arrested in Gwinnett between November 2009 and November 2010, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for ICE.

It's impossible to determine whether fewer illegal immigrants are being jailed since the program started, because deputies were unable to check the immigration status of inmates prior to November 2009.

However, jail officials have compared the number of foreign-born inmates who were jailed during the first year of 287(g) with foreign-born inmates jailed the previous year and found a 28 percent decline. The difference between the two years was 4,289 inmates.

While the average length of stay in the jail is 11 days, Conway said, if those 4,289 inmates had stayed only two days (the amount of time inmates are typically held for misdemeanor offenses) at a cost of $45 per day, they would have cost the county $386,010. Had they stayed 11 days, he said, it would have cost the county $2.1 million.

Conway estimated a little over half of foreign-born inmates were in the country illegally.

He believes the decline in foreign-born inmates is a direct result of illegal immigrants leaving Gwinnett or ceasing to drive to avoid being jailed and deported.

Lilburn Police Chief John Davidson said the program probably has made the county safer.

"Obviously, if 1,400 offenders are gone from our community, that is going to have an overall impact on crime," Davidson said. "These are people that came into contact with the sheriff because they were committing some sort of criminal offense."

Pro-immigrant groups have been critical of the 287(g) program, and Gwinnett's partnership is no exception. Opponents say the program promotes racial profiling, tears apart families and causes distrust between law enforcement and the immigrant communities they are tasked with policing. The ACLU has called for the Obama administration to end the program, saying it is fundamentally flawed.

"I think the whole system encourages racial profiling," said Azadeh Shahshahani, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Georgia. "The stated purpose is to go after the most serious offenders and to make our community safer, but in some situations it's not really clear why people are being pulled over in the first place."

Pro-immigrant organizations have pushed for an anti-racial profiling law in Georgia that would require law enforcement agencies to collect and report arrest data, including the ethnicity of those arrested. However, that effort was unsuccessful.

“No law enforcement agency in Gwinnett County is racial profiling," Conway said. "People are going to jail because they are breaking the law."

Salvador, a 26-year-old Doraville resident who asked to be identified only by his first name because he is an illegal immigrant and fears deportation, said his 27-year-old stepbrother, Hiram Huerta-Fraga, was deported Oct. 4 after being arrested by Gwinnett police for driving without a license. Huerta-Fraga was pulled over for a brake light violation, police said.

"If they see you are Hispanic they just pull you over because they know you will not have a license," Salvador said. "They are just pulling random people for no reason at all."

Salvador, who has a job with an office installation company, said he and his brother were brought into the United States by their father when they were 12 and 13 years old respectively. He said many childhood immigrants like him are willing to work hard and would gladly pay a fee for a path to citizenship.

"I love this country and I want to be here," Salvador said. "I don't think it's fair they get to decide what happens to your life after they pull you over. It's just like playing the lottery every day. You never know when you're going to get pulled over."

The Gwinnett sheriff's office is one of only five Georgia law enforcement agencies participating in 287(g). The others are the Cobb, Hall and Whitfield County sheriff's offices and the Georgia Department of Public Safety. Not surprisingly, Gwinnett, which has the largest Hispanic population in the state, identified the largest number of illegal immigrants in its jail during the 2010 federal fiscal year.

According to ICE, Cobb had 2,023, Hall 755, Whitfield 581 and the Georgia Department of Public Safety had nine.

Several other Georgia law enforcement agencies, including the Roswell Police Department and the Cherokee and Forsyth sheriff's departments, have asked to join the program. However, ICE has not approved any new programs in Georgia in 2010, citing funding issues.

U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) supports 287(g) and hopes to one day expand it.

"The 287(g) program is a great program and it works hand in glove with the Secure Communities initiative," Gingrey said. "I think both those programs are necessary. I would like to see every county participate."

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