(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Photo: Gary Coronado
Photo: Gary Coronado

Opinion: Ga. should end detention of undocumented immigrants

In December 2016, a 26-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who fled his country due to religious persecution was arrested in Gwinnett County for jaywalking. After spending two days at the Gwinnett County Jail and paying bond, he was detained an extra 48 hours for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) due to Gwinnett’s 287(g) Program. He was then transferred to the notoriously horrid Irwin County Detention Center where he spent another 11 months.

Unfortunately, his story is not unique. Scores of community members in Georgia are being targeted by local law enforcement for ICE through the 287(g) program for little or no violation.

287(g) in Georgia must end because it endangers our public safety, leads to increased racial profiling, wastes local resources, and separates families.

The 287(g) program allows the Department of Homeland Security to contract with localities to deputize local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents. This permits local law enforcement officers to investigate immigration status of people at the jail, issue ICE holds, place individuals in removal proceedings, and more. In Georgia, there are currently six 287(g) programs in place in Cobb, Floyd, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield counties, as well as the Georgia Department of Corrections. Within these localities, the 287(g) program is one of the most significant ways individuals end up in ICE custody.

Despite the rhetoric, 287(g) does not make communities safer. In 2018, over 80% of ICE arrests in Georgia counties participating in the 287(g) program were arrests of individuals with no or low-level violations such as traffic offenses. In Gwinnett County, that percentage was even higher at 90%. Surveys from the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) also show that community members were less likely to call the police even if they were victims of a crime, including victims of domestic violence, due to fear of getting caught up in immigration proceedings. This shows that 287(g) is not about keeping communities safe; rather it endangers our communities.

287(g) also increases racial profiling. Almost all individuals subject to ICE detainers have been described as having “dark or medium complexion.” In addition, law enforcement officers in Georgia counties with 287(g) such as Cobb and Gwinnett have been found to engage in racial profiling. In Gwinnett County, many Latino community members reported being stopped by law enforcement without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. This has resulted in further mistrust of law enforcement within immigrant communities. In fact, reports from GLAHR show that community members were more likely to avoid certain parts of neighborhoods with greater law enforcement presence.

287(g) also causes a significant financial burden on localities. Instead of focusing on local priorities, law enforcement in counties with 287(g) must do the work of federal immigration agents and incur almost all the cost associated with it. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute estimates that localities in Georgia with a 287(g)program recovered only 12% of the cost it took to implement the program. Gwinnett County alone spent an estimated $1.2 million to $3.7 million annually on the 287(g) program.

In 287(g) counties, after community members are ripped away from their families and detained in a county jail due to minor infractions if any at all, they are transferred into ICE custody. Most of the time, this means they are transported to one of the deadly immigration detention centers that are rampant with constitutional and human rights abuses. In Georgia alone, four immigrants have died in immigration detention centers since 2017, two of whom by suicide.

This separation of families by detention leads to community members being deported to countries that are often dangerous and even deadly. This process not only harms and traumatizes the person detained and possibly deported, but also their loved ones. In Georgia, about 226,000 children live in a home with at least one undocumented adult. Such children often face severe psychological harm. Studies have shown that a child’s risk of depression, anxiety, and severe psychological distress increases after the detention or deportation of a parent.

This is why many organizations including Project South and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights have been fighting for many years to end 287(g) programs and all local law enforcement collaboration with ICE in Georgia. We urge elected officials to immediately end this harmful program.

Priyanka Bhatt is staff attorney at Project South. Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal and Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild.

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