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Here’s A Nice Time: Local Georgia Sheriffs No Longer Foot Soldiers For ICE
And the world isn’t on fire! (In that regard.)
Last year, Keybo Taylor, the newly elected sheriff of Gwinnett County, Georgia, announced that he was ending participation in what’s known as the 287(g) program. Craig Owens, the new sheriff in Cobb County, Georgia, did the same.
“Day One, I said I was going to do away with that program,” Taylor said. “I felt that program was more detrimental to the safety and health of Gwinnett County than any benefits it may have brought.”
Under the 287(g) program, local law enforcement served as an extension of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They ran immigration checks on people booked into county jails, sharing that information with US customs officials. This could potentially result in deportation regardless of whether a crime was committed.
Critics of the 287(g) program claimed it was counter-productive. Undocumented immigrants were discouraged from contacting the police when they had information about a crime or even when they were actual victims of a crime. The risk was too great, and the numbers backed this up.
Mother Jones reported recently that the Gwinnett Sheriff’s office, led at the time by Butch Conway, ran immigration checks over the past decade on more than 20,000 immigrants, and according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the department "had more 287(g)-related referrals in 2019 and 2020 than any other participating law enforcement agency, accounting for 25 percent of almost 17,000 ICE interactions through the program in 2020.”
Both Taylor and Owens are the first Black sheriffs elected in diversifying Gwinnett and Cobb counties. Specifically, Gwinnett's Hispanic population has doubled in the past 20 years. About 25 percent of Gwinnett’s one million residents are foreign-born, and about 16 percent of Cobb’s 760,000 residents were born outside the US.
Conway, the former Gwinnett sheriff, insists ending 287(g) is a mistake and the new (Black) sheriffs are “letting criminals back in the community to do more harm.” One of these “criminals” was Jorge Alejandro Pineda, who was arrested for driving without a license in 2009 and deported to Mexico. Maybe you’re a stickler for unlicensed driving but the program led to an overall fear of law enforcement among immigrant communities that was chilling. Gigi Pedraza, executive director of the Latino Community Foundation of Georgia, recalled seeing mold and raccoons in apartments that residents wouldn't report to their landlords in fear of being deported.
“Families are just so afraid of being separated, they’d rather not call,” Pedraza said.
Lena Graber, a senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that wherever the 287(g) program exists, there are more low-level arrests of Latinos in particular. Conway boasted that one of 287(g)’s “benefits” was keeping fewer people in jail. He didn’t quite connect the dots that this “benefit” was the result of helping ICE deport more people.
More than 140 sheriffs still participate in the program, and according to Naureen Shah, the senior legislative counsel on immigrants’ rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, activists are urging President Joe Biden to follow through on his campaign promise to end the contracts ICE signed with local law enforcement during Donald Trump’s administration.
Certain Democrats might instinctively worry that ditching 287(g) only helps promote the GOP’s narrative that Democrats are soft on crime, and these “woke” progressive policies will only result in electoral defeat. However, a year later, Gwinnett and Cobb County aren’t on fire, and roving gangs of undocumented immigrants aren't murdering suburbanites in their beds.
Taylor says the 287(g) program cost the Gwinnett sheriff’s office almost $3 million a year to run. He’d rather spend some of that money battling human trafficking and gangs.
Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights President and co-founder Adelina Nicholls said her group had protested the 287(g) program for years. Republican sheriffs like Conway were unmoved, but Taylor and Owens both promised during their campaigns to end 287(g).
“This work wouldn’t be possible without the support of the African-American communities and all our brothers and sisters that helped us in this campaign,” Nicholls said.
When Owens announced the end of the 287(g) program, he told the community "we’re going to work hard to restore the trust and your faith in the Cobb County Sheriff Office.” Nicholls concedes that rebuilding trust takes time, but right now, she says people feel a little safer in their skins when they go to work and pick up their kids from schools. “I think at least we are able to breathe better,” she says.
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