Civil rights activists are pushing communities across the nation to limit their cooperation with federal deportation officers. They are keeping their phone lines ringing. They are packing their City Council meetings. And they are drafting model rules for them to adopt.
Those efforts are catching fire in the Atlanta area now that President Donald Trump is carrying out a broad crackdown on illegal immigration. Since May, three Georgia cities — Atlanta, Clarkston and Decatur — have adopted measures in favor of restricting their interactions with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The debate is helping shape Georgia’s gubernatorial race and Atlanta’s mayoral election. And it is happening as Trump is asking Congress to punish so-called “sanctuary cities.” Meanwhile, Trump is tying the issue to the fate of Obama-era protections for “Dreamers,” or immigrants who were brought to America as young children without authorization. The president announced Sunday that any congressional deal to continue their protections must include penalties for communities that cut off ties with ICE.
As of February, there were about 140 cities, counties and states that had enacted policies restricting their cooperation with ICE, according to a report by the federal agency. Some jails in these communities won’t honor ICE detainers, or requests to detain people for up to 48 hours beyond when they would normally be released so the agency can pick them up and seek to deport them. Courts have found complying with such detainers can violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Azadeh Shahshahani is part of the Georgia #Not1MoreDeportation Coalition, a group of civil and immigrant rights organizations pushing Peach State communities to restrict their work with ICE.
“What is at stake is compliance with the Constitution,” said Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director for Project South, an immigrant rights advocacy group. “It’s important for localities to send a strong message to their constituents that they are in fact welcoming communities and that immigrants and refugees should not be afraid of living in various Georgia localities.”
There is now a debate raging in Georgia over whether a state law prohibiting “sanctuary policies” bars the rules Decatur adopted last month. Either way, Shawn Hanley, the chairman of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, said he is troubled by the actions taken by Decatur as well as Atlanta and Clarkston.
“They are dividing this country even further,” said Hanley, who stressed he was sharing his own opinion and not speaking on behalf of the state board he leads. “All they are doing is encouraging more illegal immigration.”
The resistance in Georgia began years ago during the presidency of Barack Obama, who drew the derogatory nickname “deporter-in-chief” after his administration began carrying out record numbers of expulsions.
In September 2014, Fulton County commissioners passed a resolution urging Sheriff Ted Jackson to block ICE from using county facilities for "investigative interviews or other purposes." Two months later, the Clayton County Sheriff's Office announced it would no longer comply with ICE detainers. And a month after that, the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office said it wouldn't honor those detainers without a warrant or "sufficient probable cause."
Then in May of this year, Clarkston's City Council approved a policy saying city authorities shall not arrest or detain anyone based on ICE detainers. The council's decision followed the announcements of Trump's travel bans, his executive orders ramping up immigration enforcement and ICE's arrests of many Somali nationals in Clarkston. Mayor Ted Terry called the council's decision a "principled stance."
“I probably got more phone calls and emails on that issue than probably any other issue that we have dealt with in Clarkston,” he said. “It clearly hit a chord with just the average residents.”
Last month, Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss adopted a one-page policy prohibiting city police from arresting, detaining or transporting anyone based solely on an ICE detainer. Merriss said her decision codified an unwritten policy Decatur police had been following for more than 10 years.
Still, her move drew the ire of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican gubernatorial candidate. He accused Decatur of violating a state law prohibiting “sanctuary policies.” In a letter he sent last week to State Auditor Greg Griffin, Cagle pointed out state law bars cities from adopting policies prohibiting their employees from “communicating or cooperating with federal officials or law enforcement officers with regard to reporting immigration status information.”
Decatur City Attorney Bryan Downs defended the city’s policy Monday in a letter to Griffin, saying it “does not address — much less prohibit or restrict — communications or cooperation with federal officials or law enforcement officers with regard to reporting immigration status information.”
Other GOP primary candidates — Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, former state Sen. Hunter Hill and state Sen. Michael Williams — have also firmly opposed sanctuary cities. Each is taking positions on the party’s conservative flank, wary of being painted as a moderate by one of his GOP rivals.
Williams, for example, accused Decatur of "using a loophole to avoid deporting illegals" and urged the expansion of the federal 287 (g) immigration enforcement program statewide. Named after the federal law that authorizes it, it gives local law enforcement officials the power to question people about their legal status, serve arrest warrants, and detain and transport criminals for immigration violations. Four counties in Georgia – Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield — already participate.
The debate over immigration has also surfaced in the wide-open race to succeed Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in November.
In September, Atlanta's City Council passed a symbolic resolution saying city police should not arrest or detain anyone based on ICE detainers. The move followed Trump's decision to rescind the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is temporarily shielding from deportation nearly 700,000 young immigrants.
It was sponsored by City Councilman Kwanza Hall, a candidate for mayor who posed this question: “What if they were your children?”
Reed has condemned Trump’s immigration policies. But he’s stopped short of declaring Atlanta a formal sanctuary city. Some of his would-be successors say he hasn’t gone far enough. Former state Sen. Vincent Fort pledged earlier this year he would declare Atlanta a “sanctuary” even if it means risking heaps of federal dollars.
“I don’t know about you, but we’re going to fight to make sure that Atlanta is a refuge from evil,” Fort said. “I know a thing about politics: We want Atlanta to be a sanctuary city before January 2018. But if it’s not, it will be when I become mayor.”
Other contenders urge a note of caution. Former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, also a candidate for mayor, said Thursday at a debate that he would make Atlanta a “safe zone” and order police to ban racial profiling and foster a tolerant atmosphere.
“You can embrace a sanctuary city concept,” he said, “without calling it a sanctuary city.”
Credit: Jess Rapfogel/AP