Atlanta mayor won’t rule out canceling agreement to hold ICE detainees

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Thursday would not rule out cancelling a federal contract for the city jail to hold people facing deportation. Atlanta has already turned away nine, she added, since she signed an executive order spurred by the separation of immigrant families on the southwest border.

Signed Wednesday, the Democratic mayor’s order prevents the Atlanta City Detention Center from taking in any new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees. While that order is in effect, Bottoms said, city officials will meet with experts in the coming weeks and study the future of the federal contract, adding that “all things will be on the table.”

“As a country, we are better than this,” Bottoms told reporters at a crowded City Hall news conference. “We are better than separating families. These are human beings. These are children. These are mothers. These are fathers. These are families.

“I call upon the president of the United States of America to have a heart, to have compassion, to think of your own family, to think of your children, to think of — ‘What if this were your family?”

Asked about the executive order President Donald Trump signed Wednesday to keep families detained together, Bottoms referred to the Trump administration’s decision to continue prosecuting people illegally crossing the border: “I don’t know that it is meaningful, quite frankly, because his zero-tolerance policy is still in effect.”

About 200 people facing deportation were being held in the city jail Thursday. The nine detainees who were turned away Wednesday were sent about 180 miles southeast of Atlanta to the privately operated Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., Bottoms said.

The city is paid $78 a day for each ICE detainee it holds in its jail through its contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, collecting $7.5 million through this arrangement so far this fiscal year: more than a fifth of the jail’s annual $33 million budget. Bottoms acknowledged the city must make some budget decisions and is considering several options for the jail’s future.

ICE declined to comment about the mayor’s order other than to say the city jail represents less 10 percent of its detention capacity in Georgia. ICE also sends detainees to three privately-run detention centers in South Georgia, including the one in Ocilla.

“We learned about the mayor’s announcement along with everyone else,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said. “We learned about this via press release.”

The mayor’s order quickly became a political football in the Republican race for governor, a July 24 runoff between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Cagle tagged the mayor in a tweet late Wednesday, declaring he has “led to outlaw and defund sanctuary cities and WE WILL uphold our laws.” And Kemp said the city should honor its “longstanding agreement” to house the detainees.

“Public safety – not partisan politics – must always come first,” Kemp said.

Both Republicans have defended Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy and pledged tougher state crackdowns. Cagle has long scrapped with Decatur over immigration policy, and Kemp aired ads vowing to “round up criminal illegals” himself.

Bottoms responded sharply to the GOP attacks on the policy shift, which comes after years of criticism from immigrant-rights advocates who slammed Atlanta for holding ICE detainees.

“I don’t take advice from people who hold shotguns at children,” she said, referring to one of Kemp’s recent tongue-in-cheek television campaign ads. “Obviously, it’s political season and people will posture accordingly.”

The two Republicans broke from Gov. Nathan Deal, who has long resisted openly criticizing the city of Atlanta’s politics. The governor’s office declined to comment on Bottoms’ decision, signaling how starkly different city-state relations could be when his term ends in January.

The governor and Bottoms’ predecessor, Kasim Reed, enjoyed a warm friendship that survived a spate of political storms over policy splits and a nationally-watched re-election battle. Both men said they were able to set aside their differences to push bipartisan solutions for the city.

Deal and Bottoms have also retained the close ties over the first months of her tenure, and the governor helped her fend off a legislative attempt to give the state more control over the city’s crown jewel, the bustling Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Another sign those relations could soon be more strained: On Wednesday, Cagle filled out the membership of a study committee to probe whether a new state board should oversee the airport. He made state Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican who has championed the takeover effort, its chairman.

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, applauded Bottoms’ decision.

“All good-minded Georgians — regardless of political party — must demand action, not rhetoric, to end the administration’s cruel policies that run counter to our nation’s values,” she said.

Also Thursday, the head of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board blasted Bottoms’ executive order, calling it “knee-jerk policy.”

“For a leader like the mayor to basically just wake up one day and say, ‘We are not going to cooperate with federal law enforcement’ — that is a slap in the face to every single citizen in Atlanta,” board chairman Shawn Hanley said. “And at some point, I guarantee you, that decision she made is going to result in some type of abhorrent crime somewhere in the city.”

“She is putting the rest of the world ahead of Americans,” he added, “which too many elected officials do nowadays.”