Sheriffs worry about new burdens from proposed Georgia immigration bills

Legislation would require them to hold some immigrants for possible deportation
Advocacy groups representing the Latino and Muslim communities protested earlier this month outside the Capitol in Atlanta against several bills, including House Bill 1105. The measure would require local sheriffs to work with the federal government when someone in custody is discovered to be in the country illegally. (Arvin Temkar /



Advocacy groups representing the Latino and Muslim communities protested earlier this month outside the Capitol in Atlanta against several bills, including House Bill 1105. The measure would require local sheriffs to work with the federal government when someone in custody is discovered to be in the country illegally. (Arvin Temkar /

Sheriffs are raising concerns about legislation in the General Assembly targeting illegal immigration, saying the bills would shift more of the burden to them to identify people in the country without legal permission and hold them for federal authorities.

Authors of the bills say some sheriffs in the state are not cooperating with federal immigration officials.

Under some of these proposed requirements, sheriffs would have to attempt to verify a suspect’s immigration status and honor requests for detainment so that federal officials can deport them. Failure to comply could result in a sheriff being charged with a misdemeanor and loss of state and state-administered federal funding.

Legislation regarding sheriffs’ roles in enforcing immigration has been in the works for at least a year, but efforts gained steam last month after police charged Jose Antonio Ibarra with the death of nursing student Laken Riley near the University of Georgia’s campus. Ibarra lives in Athens but is not a U.S. citizen, and authorities say he entered the country illegally in 2022.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contacted more than a dozen sheriffs across Georgia about the legislation. Many — especially in metro Atlanta counties — would not comment on the bills, but most sheriffs who spoke to the AJC said they already comply with federal requests to seek citizenship information about suspects and honor requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold them. Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said 120 sheriffs across the state who responded to a survey said they were already notifying ICE.

However, sheriffs said some of what lawmakers want is hard to accomplish. Sheriffs can’t enforce immigration law without federal authorization, which few have, and information on the immigration status of suspects may be limited. And sometimes jailers make mistakes.

“Everybody lets things slip through the cracks sometimes,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said.

House Bill 1105, sponsored by Savannah Republican Rep. Jesse Petrea, would prohibit cities and counties from enacting immigration “sanctuary” policies that would allow local officials to give safe harbor to people living in the country without legal permission. Georgia law already restricts local governments from acting as immigration sanctuaries, but supporters of HB 1105 say the bill gives that law additional enforcement muscle.

Sheriffs would also be required to apply for the 287(g) program, which, approved by Congress in 1996, gives local authorities the power to investigate, detain and transport people facing deportation. The House last month approved HB 1105, and it is awaiting a vote by the Senate.

“My constituents are passionate about this. It is their No. 1 issue,” Petrea said.

Another bill, House Bill 301, would allow residents to sue local governments they believe are not following immigration laws.

Sills said he’s concerned about additional requirements these bills would add.

For example, under HB 1105 jailers would be required to compile and post on their websites a report that includes the number of inmates booked, inquiries made about suspects to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, responses received for requests and the number of immigration detainers issued by ICE.

“We are constantly having laws passed that put onerous, ancillary duties on us because of (other counties) that won’t comply with the law,” Sills said. “Every minute we are tasked with a bureaucratic reporting process is only going to take away from our ability to protect the public on the street.”

Language in the bill would also require sheriffs to enforce federal immigration laws. But unless sheriffs are part of the 287(g) program, Norris said they cannot operate as a federal agent.

And Sills said it often is impossible to determine suspects’ immigration status if they give false names or dates of birth and are jailed for their first offense.

That’s because sheriffs can only work with the information they have. When someone commits a crime and gets sent to jail, the arresting officer scans their fingerprint and sends it to the Georgia Crime Information Center.

The officer also runs an inquiry, with the suspect’s name and date of birth, through a system called the Law Enforcement Support Center, which connects to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to provide information about that person’s immigration status.

But information will only come back if that person has been previously apprehended by ICE. It will also notify the officer if that person holds a green card or has sought asylum, said Lindsay Williams, a spokesperson for the Atlanta ICE Office.

“There’s no way for a jail officer at 2 in the morning to determine whether or not a person is here illegally from the nationality of the person, unless that person admits to it or they have had prior contact with ICE or some prior arrest,” Sills said.

Even if ICE does request a detainer for a suspect, sheriffs cannot hold suspects for more than 48 hours without violating their Fourth Amendment rights protecting them from unreasonable searches and seizures. If ICE has not come within that time period, sheriffs must release them.

“If ICE sends a detainer, we honor that detainer,” Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman said. Often, “ICE doesn’t honor its own detainer because they don’t come to pick them up,” he said.

Williams said ICE has limited resources and has to prioritize cases with the highest risk to public safety.

The sheriffs who spoke to the AJC agreed that punishment for failure to comply with these requirements should only fall on those in power, not jail staff following commands.

“If I made a rule today that said you’re not going to call ICE or honor detainers, my employees should not be held liable for what I ordered them to do,” Sills said.

But most sheriffs, including Sills, said they should comply with ICE requests.

Freeman said sheriffs “took an oath to follow the law.”

“You do disservice to citizens when you don’t honor the ICE detainer because you have no idea what they want him for,” he said.

Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee said, “We try to be proactive and stay in compliance especially for something as serious as immigration.”

In 2020, newly elected Democratic sheriffs in Cobb and Gwinnett counties said they would make good on their campaign promises and stop their jails from participating in the 287(g) program. At the time, Keybo Taylor, Gwinnett’s sheriff, called the program discriminatory.

In a statement last week, Cobb Sheriff Craig Owens said he has complied with federal and state laws related to detainment, but he said he does not want to “run the risk of detaining lawful American citizens.”

Owens criticized lawmakers’ work on the new immigration bills, which he said were drafted without the input of sheriffs.

“Backing the blue means including us,” he said.

Many metro Atlanta sheriffs declined to comment on the pending legislation, but former Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway had harsh words for anyone who refused to participate in the program.

“Anybody who wants to be elected sheriff who won’t report illegal criminals to ICE doesn’t need to be the sheriff,” Conway said. “They’re not protecting their community.”

A Republican, Conway took a tough stance on immigration, enrolling the county in the 287(g) program in 2019. He decided not to see reelection in 2020, and Taylor reversed that decision when he was elected to the office.

Advocates for immigrant communities said these bills unfairly targeted Latinos.

Geovani Serrano, a community organizer for the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said he is concerned these bills would lead to “racial profiling and civil rights violations and the erosion of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”