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No easy task
A proposed criminal deportation program has many supporters, but it's no easy task

LAWRENCEVILLE - Butch Conway really wouldn't mind kicking all the criminals out of Gwinnett County.

So the sheriff is excited about signing up for a program to deport illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

But while the concept is easy, in his eyes, the implementation is quite complicated.

For weeks, Conway has sparred publicly with Chairman Charles Bannister, who wanted to implement the program during an election year.

"It is time to take action. It is time to get serious on the problem of illegal immigrants who commit crimes in our county," Bannister said in a press release nearly two weeks ago. "This is a common sense measure that will allow law enforcement to begin deportation proceedings on illegal immigrants who threaten our families."

While the men agree on the concept, Conway said he needs support to fully staff the jail and have enough deputies to spare for immigration enforcement, a new concept that is spreading across the country.

"We've been going through growing pains for the last eight or nine years," Conway said of the number of inmates, which has ballooned to a daily average of 2,501 inmates, about 400 of whom have to sleep on the floor. "I keep hoping that's going to level out, but I've been hoping that for about 10 years."

Of the 39,000 jail admissions in 2007, 12,030 were born in another country, and Conway estimates that about 60 percent of those are in this country illegally. That's 15 percent of the jail population that could be opened up to stop the overcrowding.

"We are spending a lot of money putting people in jail and housing them, and they shouldn't be here," Conway said. "We have too many of anybody bad. I would like to deport the domestic criminals, too."

Trust issues

After a raise in salaries for deputies, Conway hopes to hire about 40 more deputies and have them trained by July. That would give him enough staffers to fully open a jail tower and relieve the overcrowding enough to qualify for the federal 287(g) program in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement trains public safety personnel to check immigration status and begin deportation paperwork for inmates in the country illegally.

Conway wants to add another 18 deputies to work on that program, if allowed in a July adjustment to the county budget.

But the program could also wipe away years of work to gain trust within immigrant communities.

Julia Perilla, a Georgia State professor and an immigrant from Colombia, has worked for years on domestic violence issues. She said it took time for immigrants, especially undocumented workers, to feel safe calling the police.

"We used to be able to say police had nothing to do with immigration, but now we can't say that," Perilla said.

Conway acknowledges that trust from law-abiding workers could vanish, if calling the police could mean deportation, especially in domestic violence situations.

"That's a definite downside to it," he said. "All we can get out to that community is if they commit a crime, they are likely to be deported. It may cause a hardship to police. ... I think it's worth it, but we have to try it and see if it works."

Immigration

enforcement trend

According to Richard Rocha with ICE, the concept has been successful throughout the country.

Since 2002, 37 agencies have signed agreements for the federal program, in which deputies receive four weeks of training to begin deportation proceedings, although the final decision on deportation is left to a judge. The county would also qualify for reimbursement for housing illegals.

"Anytime we have local officers who are helping with the immigration process, it helps speed up the deportation process," Rocha said. "Every time federal and local agencies can combine forces, it helps the public."

Of the 37 agencies, 26 signed up in 2007, including Cobb County, the first in Georgia. Currently, deputies in Whitfield and Hall counties are undergoing training.

"Local agencies have seen the success of the program in neighboring agencies," Rocha said. "Local law enforcement agencies see it as removing criminals ... not just from their streets but from the country as well."

Cobb's Sheriff Neil Warren did not respond to repeated attempts to communicate, but according to his Web site, deputies and ICE agents interviewed 2,740 foreign-born inmates between July 1, 2007, and Jan. 31, 2008.

Officers placed immigration holds and started initial deportation proceedings on 1,730 and ICE has picked up 1,121 inmates.

Since October 2005, Rocha said 42,000 have been identified nationwide for possible immigration violations through the 287(g) program.

Taxes and resources

Joe Newton, a Norcross man who lives in a Latino community, has been putting together numbers to try to get the program implemented in Gwinnett.

He said he loves his neighbors, but he witnesses too much Latino-on-Latino crime and wants the law-breakers sent back to their home countries.

"In my opinion, Latinos are the victims of a lot of crimes that would be stopped if these hoodlums are reported," he said, adding that he witnessed a burglary in broad daylight while sitting at his desk last spring. Also last year, there were three murders within two weeks a few blocks from his home.

"I'm concerned about the ones committing serious crimes," Newton said.

But he added that if a criminal is deported, that criminal's wife and children may leave the country as well, opening up more classrooms in Gwinnett's overcrowded schools, shortening the waiting time at emergency rooms and freeing up police and other public safety officers.

"If we're going to be this generous in this country (to immigrants), the least they could do is behave," Newton said. "If we continue to let the criminal illegal element stay, we're in for a huge tax increase."

To implement the program, though, is also a huge expense, Conway said.

He is asking for a staffing boost in 2008 of $1,027,000, and he believes it will cost $500,000 to $1.2 million to house enough inmates in other facilities to solve the overcrowding problem and qualify for the program.

The housing issue could continue, and Conway said there is a "big question mark" about the reimbursement for housing illegals.

"I'm excited about it. Hopefully we can get things fixed up," Conway said, adding that the current population of illegals may have dwindled because of Gwinnett's slumping construction market. "It's something we've looked at for a couple of years but didn't have the resources. ... It's something we can get in and see if it works."