Federal immigration authorities complained last month they were excluded from key discussions leading up to Atlanta’s decision to stop detaining in the city jail people facing deportation, according to documents obtained under Georgia’s Open Records Act.
In an email to city officials, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said some of its top Atlanta officials were asked to leave a meeting of a mayoral committee studying the issue. Further, ICE asked the city to remove its name from the executive order Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed on Sept. 6 to carry out her decision.
A separate email the federal agency sent the city the same day said it was inaccurate to describe in the executive order ICE’s privately run detention centers as “substandard.”
The dozens of emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveal the city’s fraught relationship with ICE and provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the mayor reached her decision.
The mayor’s executive order came amid enforcement of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy on the southwest border, which split up many immigrant families. Bottoms has been outspoken in her opposition to that federal policy, drawing international media attention and creating political fodder for Georgia’s gubernatorial race. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee, criticized the mayor’s move, while a campaign spokeswoman for former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, commended Bottoms.
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ICE fired off its emails to the city just hours after Bottoms signed the executive order at a crowded City Hall news conference. She ordered all remaining ICE detainees moved out of the city jail and declared that Atlanta would no longer hold anyone else for the federal agency.
To help her reach her decision, Bottoms had convened an advisory panel of city officials, attorneys, advocates for immigrants and others. ICE was invited to join the panel, which ultimately recommended an indefinite ban against holding the federal agency’s detainees in the Atlanta City Detention Center.
Recalling the meeting where ICE officials were asked to leave, Kristen Sullivan, ICE’s assistant Atlanta field office director, said in a Sept. 6 email to the mayor and other city officials that “the subsequent discussion and recommendations made by the advisory committee were done without ICE input after excluding ICE from the process.”
“Any suggestion that ICE was included in this discussion or concurs with its recommendations should be removed from the executive order,”Sullivan wrote.
State Rep. Bee Nguyen, who served as one of the mayoral advisory committee’s co-chairwomen, said ICE was “present through multiple portions of the process.” At one of its meetings, she said, the panel asked ICE officials to leave so that some of the federal agency’s former detainees – they had pending Immigration Court cases — could share their experiences with the committee in private.
“Prior to that, we had met with them without the full committee being present,” the Atlanta Democrat said of ICE. “And we toured [the Atlanta City Detention Center] with them as well. And from everything I saw up until that point they were very much part of the process.”
Michael Smith, a spokesman for the mayor, said ICE officials declined to attend future committee meetings after they were politely asked to leave when their former detainees spoke to the panel.
“They were invited back to every subsequent meeting. They did not accept the offer,” Smith said.
Nguyen added the mayoral committee didn’t get all the information it was seeking from ICE, including the number of asylum seekers who were held in the city jail.
“There were things that there weren’t clear answers on at the end of the day,” she said.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said that “if the committee had any outstanding questions about this agency, that’s because of the committee’s own actions.”
“We were asked to leave prior to the committee hearing public testimony and also prior to committee deliberations,” Cox said. “This resulted in the committee only hearing one-sided allegations about this agency while it declined to hear from ICE.”
There were just five ICE detainees in the jail the week Bottoms signed that order, down from 205 in June. The number fell as ICE released them, deported others and transported some to its other detention centers in Folkston, Lumpkin and Ocilla. Atlanta was paid $78 a day for each ICE detainee it held in the jail through a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service. Atlanta collected $6.7 million through that arrangement last fiscal year.
The emails obtained by the AJC also show city officials discussing the history of the U.S. Marshals contract, receiving applications from people seeking to serve on the mayor’s advisory committee and reaching out to other cities for information.
In an Aug. 20 email, Michelle Maziar, director of the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, contacted a Charlotte, N.C., official about possible retaliation by ICE in response to the mayor’s decision on the jail.
“We are about to make a big announcement here regarding our relationship with ICE, and Mayor Bottoms (and myself) were concerned about potential retaliation,” Maziar wrote the Charlotte official. “I did have a few questions for you regarding retaliation by ICE. Do you have a few minutes to talk over the coming days to discuss how to mitigate such a response and any best practices that you could share, prior to our announcement?”
In her email, Maziar references the 287(g) immigration enforcement program that the Mecklenburg County, N.C., jail participates in with ICE. Mecklenburg Sheriff-elect Garry McFadden has pledged to stop the jail’s participation in that program. He is expected to be sworn into office in early December.
ICE, meanwhile, has said that if they are excluded from the county jail, the agency would be forced to deploy more of its officers to the streets of Mecklenburg, and that it’s possible they could encounter more immigrants without legal status who were not originally on their radar.
“The end result is likely to be more persons encountered by ICE, not less,” said Cox, the ICE spokesman. “And that is simply due to the nature of how enforcement is done. But to describe that as retaliation would be categorically false.”
Asked what ICE has done concerning Atlanta’s decision, Cox said: “The Atlanta City Detention Center accounted for less than 10 percent of ICE’s detention capacity in Georgia. Since the mayor’s prior announcement in June to not accept new detainees, this agency simply placed detainees at other facilities.”