New sheriffs to end immigration enforcement program in Cobb, Gwinnett

Lawrenceville: Deputy D. Dean processes an inmate at the Gwinnett County Jail, which participates in the federal 287(g) immigration enforcement program. Vino Wong/vwong@ajc.com
Lawrenceville: Deputy D. Dean processes an inmate at the Gwinnett County Jail, which participates in the federal 287(g) immigration enforcement program. Vino Wong/vwong@ajc.com

Biden pledges to ‘aggressively limit the use of 287(g)’

Two newly elected Democratic sheriffs confirmed this week they will make good on their campaign promises and stop the Cobb and Gwinnett county jails from participating in a controversial immigration enforcement program.

That would leave the 287(g) program — named after the section of the federal law that authorizes it — operating in several other Georgia counties, none of which are in the Atlanta metro area, as well as in the state prison system, according to federal records.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden, who appears headed toward victory in the presidential election, has pledged to “aggressively limit the use of 287(g) and similar programs that force local law enforcement to take on the role of immigration enforcement.”

In contrast, President Donald Trump has pushed for an expansion of the program. Since he issued an executive order to that effect in 2017, the number of 287(g) programs operating across America has grown from 42 to 141 in 25 states.

Authorized by Congress in 1996, the program deputizes state and local officials to help enforce federal immigration laws in local jails and state prison systems, giving them the authority to investigate, detain and transport people facing deportation.

Supporters call it a “force multiplier” that helps deter illegal immigration. Critics argue it splits up families and makes immigrants fearful of reporting crimes.

‘They are being terrorized’

This week, Cobb County Police Maj. Craig Owens unseated longtime Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren, a staunch proponent of the program. Owens said his goal is to end Cobb’s participation in 287(g) within the first 100 days of taking office and shift resources away from it to other priorities.

Ending the program in Cobb, he said, would help rebuild trust with the county’s immigrant communities. Immigrants, he said, are now fearful of Cobb sheriff’s deputies, leaving crimes unreported.

“They are being terrorized by some of their own community members because they won’t call the police because they fear they will be deported,” he said.

Keybo Taylor, a retired Gwinnett police major who defeated Republican Luis Solis to become the county’s next sheriff, called the 287(g) program discriminatory.

“It has some of the same elements that we have dealt with as Blacks and African Americans back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when we were profiled based upon the color of our skin,” he said.

“I am going to issue a letter on Day One, notifying ICE that we are going to discontinue our agreement with that program, ending any participation with any of my deputies on any operations with” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE issued a statement saying that during fiscal year 2019, its 287(g) programs resulted in nearly 25,000 encounters with people who were in the country illegally.

“We look forward to working with the newly elected sheriffs to continue our partnership and shared commitment to public safety,” Thomas Giles, director of enforcement and removal operations in ICE’s Atlanta field office, said in a prepared statement.

‘A huge win for us’

The sheriff’s offices in Floyd, Hall, Polk and Whitfield counties and the Georgia Department of Corrections have signed 287(g) agreements with ICE. Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry signed such papers with ICE last year, but he said this week his office does not participate in the program.

“We have had tremendous success with the program and (are) very pleased with it,” Whitfield Sheriff Scott Chitwood said in an email.

Opponents of the program rejoiced this week after learning of Taylor’s and Owens' victories.

“For far too long, 287(g) created an atmosphere of terror for immigrants and communities of color in Cobb and Gwinnett,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, an immigrant advocacy organization. “Today, we celebrate the ouster of the sheriffs who were responsible for the targeting of community members, working in collusion with ICE.”

Sandra Servin Mendez of Marietta helped turn out Hispanic voters for Owens. Brought here from Mexico as a child without legal status, she is now a legal permanent resident who graduated from Osborne High School.

“Everybody feels like they can breathe. It is a huge win for us,” said Servin Mendez, a paralegal who helps immigrants. “It feels like a new hope for a better tomorrow.”

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