Several immigrant advocacy groups declined to join a Wednesday night panel discussion in Gwinnett County after learning the local sheriff had tapped a controversial activist to participate.
The crowded — and tense — event proceeded with other pro-immigrant speakers filling in.
Gwinnett Commissioner Marlene Fosque, a Democrat, organized the panel discussion scheduled to discuss the county’s participation in the federal immigration enforcement program known as 287(g). The divisive program allows deputies with the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office to flag and hold detainees for immigration authorities.
Less than three hours before Wednesday’s 7 p.m. event, advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta announced it had declined an invitation after learning that Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway had invited D.A. King to join the panel.
King is a self-described "proud American nationalist" and president of the Marietta-based Dustin Inman Society, which is named for a Woodstock teenager who died in a car crash with an undocumented immigrant in 2000.
The left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed the Dustin Inman Society an anti-immigrant hate group.
“By choosing D.A. King as its official spokesperson, the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office has blatantly shown that it operates on a platform of racism and complete disregard of any immigrant rights,” an Asian Americans Advancing Justice wrote in a news release.
Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director for another group called Project South, confirmed it had declined an invitation to participate as well. She said the group was willing to engage in a two-sided discussion but King’s involvement was a bridge too far.
“We didn’t want to give him any legitimacy,” Shahshahani said.
The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, which works closely with Project South and has had a regular presence during protests at recent meetings of the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners, also declined to participate Wednesday night, Shahshahani said.
Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Deputy Shannon Volkodav said King was invited because he is a “long-standing supporter of the 287(g) program” and knowledgeable about immigration issues.
"We simply came to share our perspective, which was the purpose of tonight's event,” Volkodav said. “It's very disappointing that as many as three groups who were supposed to be here tonight chose not to come and simply share their perspective because they didn't like one panelist."
Other advocates decided to give it a shot.
The panel ultimately consisted of local attorney Antonio Molina, business leader Andrea Rivera, and State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero on the anti-287(g) side.
King, Volkodav and Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox spoke in favor of the program.
The 200 free public tickets for the event were snatched up within hours of being made available last week. The crowd Wednesday night was divided roughly evenly and, perhaps predictably, things got off to a rocky start.
King spoke first and audience members opposed to 287(g) greeted him with signs filled with his past comments regarding undocumented immigrants. His opening statement riled them further.
“You're going to hear that nobody is illegal, which is false,” King said.
King later said he was unfazed by the backlash.
The opposite side of the panel was also greeted with signs, these expressing support for Conway.
“This issue is one of love versus hate,” Molina said.
Five Georgia counties -- Gwinnett, Cobb, Floyd, Hall and Whitfield -- participate in the program, as does the state Department of Corrections. There are about 80 participating jurisdictions nationwide.
Proponents of the program say it makes communities safer and saves taxpayer money by keeping repeat offenders off the streets.
Critics say it makes immigrant communities less safe by discouraging them from reporting crimes, and that it primarily results in the removal of low-level offenders like those arrested for traffic violations.
Conway signed an extension of his agency’s 287(g) agreement in mid-May, with the national conversation over immigration at a fever pitch — and as local protests and other outside pressure mounted. Immigrant advocates had anticipated the sheriff’s renewal decision would be made a month or so later, when the existing agreement expired.
The extended agreement means the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office will participate in the 287(g) program through at least June 30, 2020.
Gwinnett is one of the most diverse communities in the Southeast. About a quarter of its residents are foreign-born, and the county is estimated to be home to around 70,000 immigrants who are in the country without permission.
Fosque, who took office in January, has said she organized the event because she wanted to foster a civil conversation about the program.
The meeting was tense throughout, with pointed barbs exchanged between Romero Lopez and King and multiple outbursts from the audience. But Fosque said she thought her goal was achieved.
“People have passion, and that’s OK to have passion,” she said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story suggested that activist D.A. King represented the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office during the panel discussion. King was invited by Sheriff Butch Conway to speak in favor of the 287(g) program but was not representing Conway’s agency.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.