Gwinnett sheriff vows to renew divisive immigration program

Few law enforcement leaders in America have embraced the federal immigration program known as 287(g) as enthusiastically as Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway.

Over the past decade, Conway's deputies working in the Gwinnett County jail have questioned more than 52,000 arrestees about their immigration status. Nearly 15,000 of those questioned have been handed over to federal immigration authorities as part of the controversial program.

“It has saved people,” the sheriff said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I certainly think there have been fewer child molestations, rapes, murders, robberies.”

Now, as Conway ponders whether to seek a seventh term in next year’s election, the oft-embattled lawman may be setting the stage for the most formidable political fight of his career.

Conway says he’ll renew his agency’s participation in 287(g) when the three-year term of the current agreement with the federal government expires in June. And while such renewals have garnered little attention since Gwinnett joined the program in 2009, a growing protest movement is already forming to oppose the sheriff and Gwinnett’s continued participation in 287(g) — with an eye toward making the program a central issue in the 2020 election season.

Two Democrats have announced their intentions to run to replace Conway as sheriff of the state’s second most populous county, a quarter of whose 927,000 residents are foreign-born. Both challengers have said they oppose the program.

That could turn into a potent political message as Gwinnett voters have shown an increasing willingness to embrace Democrats and their policy proposals.

“I think [Conway’s] out of touch with the reality of what the county residents actually want,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

Michael Murphy-McCarthy from the group Indivisible Ga. 7 speaks to Gwinnett County commissioners about the sheriff’s participation in the 287(g) immigration program during a commission meeting on Feb. 5, 2019. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

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A ‘productive’ program

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

Critics across the country say the program harms communities by destroying trust between immigrant populations and local law enforcement, making victims less likely to report crimes and witnesses less likely to cooperate. Proponents say it helps remove criminals from local communities who shouldn’t even be in the country.

The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office is one of just six agencies in Georgia — and just 77 jurisdictions nationwide — to participate in the program.

(Bartow County Sheriff W. Clark Millsap confirmed Wednesday his office ended its participation in the program in March, just over a year after he signed a memorandum of understanding with ICE to start it. Bartow’s program did not result in any deportations during the federal fiscal year ending in September, according to ICE’s figures.

“We had no problems with the program,” Millsap said in an email. “Lack of staffing was the main issue in our decision.”)

ICE, meanwhile, has celebrated its relationship with Conway’s agency as one of the country’s most “productive.”

Between late 2009 and March 2019, more than 52,000 people arrested and taken to the Gwinnett County jail were interviewed by deputies about their immigration status, according to figures provided by the sheriff’s agency. Nearly 15,000 were turned over to federal immigration authorities.

ICE has not provided an accounting of the specific charges against 287(g) detainees requested by the AJC in November.

But Conway is quick to point out that violent criminals have been removed from Gwinnett — and the United States — thanks in part to 287(g), which is named for a section of the federal law that created it. According to statistics provided by the sheriff’s office, the nearly 40,000 individual charges filed against Gwinnett detainees over the years include 42 counts of murder; 123 counts of rape; and 287 aggravated child molestation charges.

Immigrant advocates focus on the large proportion of people that are handed over to federal authorities after being picked up solely on traffic violations. Conway estimates that number is around 40 percent but activists put it even higher.

Families are torn apart over things like driving without a license, activists argue.

The sheriff suggests otherwise.

“They’re deported because they’re illegally here,” Conway said.

Driving a wedge

Conway has been no stranger to criticism during his tenure as sheriff, whether it be for his blistering 2015 open letter about Black Lives Matter, his use of federal forfeiture funds or his jail's "rapid response team," a squad that's been sued multiple times for its use of so-called restraint chairs, which critics call abusive.

He declined to say if he plans to run for re-election in 2020.

Two Democrats, meanwhile, have already announced their plans to try to unseat him.

Both Curtis Clemons and Keybo Taylor are retired leaders of the Gwinnett County Police Department. And both told the AJC they plan to end the sheriff's office's participation in 287(g) if they are elected.

It’s likely to be a central issue in the election, whether Conway runs or not.

“It drives a wedge between law enforcement and the citizens and ultimately I think makes all of us more unsafe,” said Clemons, who retired in March as an assistant chief in charge of community outreach. He and Taylor spoke about victims and witnesses being afraid to speak to police officers because of their immigration status.

Conway argued that such assertions suggest immigrants don’t know the difference between the police department (which does the overwhelming majority of arresting and investigating in the county) and the sheriff’s office (which mainly serves existing warrants and runs the county jail).

But activists maintain the sheriff’s office’s participation in 287(g) is a factor in immigrant communities’ relationship with law enforcement. Anyone arrested by Gwinnett police, after all, winds up in the custody of the sheriff’s office.

“We’re helping to enforce laws that should be dealt with on a federal level,” said Taylor, who retired as a major with GCPD in 2009.

Curtis Clemons (left) and Keybo Taylor (right) both plan to run for Gwinnett County Sheriff as Democrats in 2020. Both are retired from the Gwinnett County Police Department. SPECIAL PHOTOS

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‘A political issue’

Critics of 287(g) — including Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, which has launched an "ICE Out of Gwinnett" campaign — have also begun focusing on the financial costs of the program.

Since 2009, Gwinnett County has spent more than $15 million participating in the federal program. That includes more than $2 million budgeted for 2019.

While Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners does not have direct authority over Conway’s participation in 287(g), it does control the sheriff’s budget.

Two Democrats joined the five-member commission in January, the first time the party held a seat in three decades. But there’s been little to suggest that the current commission has the political will to touch the sheriff’s budget.

Yet with the three Republican seats up for election in 2020, there’s a growing sense that Democrats have a legitimate chance to gain a majority on the board.

Conway seems to sense the shifting local views of a program he has championed for so many years. He said he’s previously presented the 287(g) renewal to commissioners as a matter of courtesy. He doesn’t think he’ll do so when he makes the decision to renew next month.

“I think it’s become too much of a political issue,” the sheriff said. “So I’ll probably just do it myself.”

--Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

287(g) in Georgia

Six law enforcement agencies in Georgia participate in the federal 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement to carry out some of the duties of federal immigration authorities. In Gwinnett and other counties, this generally involves checking the immigration status of anyone booked into a jail. Authorities flag those individuals believed to be in the country without permission.

A total of 77 jurisdictions participate in 287(g) nationwide.

Here are the participating Georgia agencies:

  • Cobb County Sheriff's Office
  • Floyd County Sheriff's Office
  • Georgia Department of Corrections
  • Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office
  • Hall County Sheriff's Office
  • Whitfield County Sheriff's Office

*The Immigration and Customs Enforcement website lists the Bartow County Sheriff's Office as a participating agency. But the sheriff's office reports that it discontinued its participation in 287(g) in March due to a lack of staffing.