LAWRENCEVILLE - Chairman Charles Bannister has called for Gwinnett's sheriff to train his deputies to enforce immigration laws. But the sheriff said politics has kept him from hiring the staff needed to even consider the program.
The move on a political hot button issue has placed the sheriff in the center of the upcoming chairman's race, as Bannister's opponent, Commissioner Lorraine Green, plans a change next week to give deputies equal pay to police officers.
"Gwinnett County has got to move the ball forward with the issue of illegal immigration," Bannister said in a press release, where he also called for revision of the county's illegal immigration ordinance, which Green authored last summer.
"It's a simple concept. You break the law by coming into the country illegally. You break it again by committing some crime that then lands you in the county jail. We turn you over to (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to be sent home," Bannister said. "I wish we had a program to make all criminals leave the county. Why wouldn't we take advantage of such a program as this when it becomes available?"
The program, which has been implemented by Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, would allow deputies to begin paperwork for a deportation process for illegals in the jail.
Two ICE officers are currently assigned to Gwinnett's jail, Sheriff Butch Conway said. This year, 360 inmates were deported and ICE has holds on another 127.
Conway said he does not have the personnel to dedicate his own staffers to the job, and he isn't convinced that the program would help any more than the current situation.
"When I have the personnel, I'll entertain it, if it shows that it will deport any more people than now," Conway said, accusing the chairman of retaliation because the sheriff was able to get enough support from commissioners to move forward on the pay parity proposal.
Since opening a new jail tower in 2006, Conway has struggled to hire deputies because they are paid at a lower pay scale than police officers, he said. There are currently about 60 vacancies in the department.
Green plans to amend the county budget next week to increase deputy pay, and she said that deal hinged on Conway pursuing the ICE program.
"It was part of the agreement when we looked into parity," she said.
While the sheriff is independently elected, the police chief works for the Board of Commissioners. In his release, Bannister said he asked the police chief to have officers inquire about residency during an arrest, so judges can assess flight risk.
Police Chief Charles Walters was not in the office Friday to comment.
Conway said he resented Bannister's press release, saying he met with the chairman just last week about the pay issue but did not get support. Bannister said he offered extra incentives for new hires, which would cost $320,000 instead of the $1.5 million price tag to boost salaries throughout the department.
"It's unbelievable he's come out with this all of a sudden," Conway said, adding that the move has tipped him toward supporting Green in next year's Republican primary for chairman. "I want to do everything we can in Gwinnett County to decrease crime. I will see that all of those (illegals) that commit crimes will be deported."
In a statement released later Friday, Conway added, "If he now says he has the money, then by all means, let's get on with it."
As for the ordinance, which forces county contractors to verify the legal residency of all of their staffers, Green said a rewrite is already in the works as part of "settlement discussions" for a federal lawsuit filed a month ago by Associated General Contractors of America and the Georgia Utility Contractors Association.
"We have no choice but to rewrite our ordinance," she said. "We do still intend to have an ordinance that is stricter than state law, and we intend to maximize our ability to enforce (immigration) law."