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Sheriff plans to pursue training deputies in deportation program

LAWRENCEVILLE - Sheriff Butch Conway plans to train his deputies to begin deportation proceedings for illegal immigrants.

Conway, who has been in a public battle with Chairman Charles Bannister over the proposal for weeks, said he would like to start training 18 deputies in July, if he can hire enough personnel to fully staff the jail and get funding from commissioners.

Conway made a presentation on the plan Monday but did not discuss it with the media until Bannister issued a press release saying he would seek support from other commissioners to pressure the sheriff into the federal program.

"I want to do it, and I think we can do it with 18 (deputies)," Conway said, adding that he was furious Bannister once again brought the issue to the media before talking to him about it. "If Mr. Bannister will put his money where his mouth is, I think we can get this going in the next few months."

Conway said he believed the program would cost between $2 and $3 million in 2008, but its implementation hinges on relief of the jail's overcrowded conditions. To qualify, the jail must meet federal standards, which include not having inmates sleep on mats on the floor.

After another public battle with Bannister over pay disparity between deputies and police officers, deputy salaries were raised in January, and Conway said he has had a lot more luck at hiring new staffers. He said he hopes to have the county's $75 million jail tower expansion completely opened by July.

But to take all inmates off the floor, he said he would likely have to house many in neighboring jurisdictions - an unknown expense at this point.

Bannister said Conway's announcement does not change his desire to introduce a resolution before commissioners next week.

"If he does it, that's good; we win the battle," Bannister said.

In the release, he said, "It is time to take action. It is time to get serious on the problem of illegal immigrants who commit crimes in our county. There have been several newspaper articles and citizens calling for action. This is a common sense measure that will allow law enforcement to begin deportation proceedings on illegal immigrants who threaten our families."

The program was implemented in Cobb County last year, and 1,011 illegals were picked up by immigration officials from the county jail between July 1, 2007, and Jan. 31 according to Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren's Web site.

Conway said about 13,000 foreign-born people were booked into the Gwinnett County Jail last year, and he estimated 60 to 65 percent of those people were illegal immigrants.

Denise Varenhorst, the president of the Conservative Republican Women of Gwinnett, the group to whom Conway made his presentation Monday, said she was glad to see some movement on the program.

"I think it sounds like an excellent program we need to be doing in the county," she said. "I think there's a tremendous amount of popular support for it."

Varenhorst said she read about the fight between Conway and Bannister in the newspaper but was glad to see that neither would stand in the way of the implementation.

"It's an election year, and there is a lot of public demand that the sheriff aggressively pursue training the staff and the commission aggressively pursue the funding," she said. "I think everyone is pretty much on board now."

Commissioner Lorraine Green who is challenging Bannister in July's Republican primary, said Bannister should stop "attacking by press release."

"This should not be a political issue. This should be about solving the county's problems," she said. "We need to quit talking about this and give the sheriff what he has told us time and time again he needs to run his department."