ICE funding must go through fitting review

Editor's note: Gwinnett County officials have been studying a federal program that would assist local law enforcement in deporting illegal immigrants who have been arrested.

Commission Chairman Charles Bannister today shares his thoughts on the issue.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway was also offered the chance to write an editorial on 287(g). He declined but reiterated his comments that he wants to implement the program once he gets proper funding. "I want to do it, and I think we can do it with 18 (additional deputies)," he said previously.

I appreciate the opportunity that the Gwinnett Daily Post has given me to clarify the issues surrounding the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) 287(g) program. I first want to assure Gwinnett County citizens that the Gwinnett County Commission will be moving forward quickly upon completion of the staff's study and recommendations.

Several months ago, and on more than one occasion, I discussed with Sheriff Butch Conway the possibilities for 287(g) and the recommendations he had. He stated that the program was unnecessary since ICE assigned two agents to the jail to review the immigration status of inmates.

According to the sheriff, in 2007, his department successfully identified 360 inmates for ICE pickup.

After hearing that Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren's 287(g) had turned over close to 800 inmates to ICE in only six months, and after numerous comments at Board of Commissioners meetings in November and December 2007, as well as numerous citizen e-mails, it was my decision to move forward once again to ask the sheriff to initiate the 287(g) program. In mid-February, I announced my intention to propose a resolution at the Feb. 26 meeting urging the participation in 287(g) by the sheriff.

At about the same time, the sheriff began hearing more and more from citizens, organizations such as the Dustin Inman Society, and a Republican group in Gwinnett supporting 287(g), and he very recently decided that he no longer opposes participation in 287(g). However, he also announced that his support comes with a heavy price tag.

A large number of citizens were in attendance at the February BOC meeting to support the 287(g) program, and I want them to know that show of support was appreciated. By April, I hope to have all the details worked out with the sheriff so we can move forward as quickly as possible.

I want to be clear. The majority of the commission has no desire to postpone this issue. We simply have conflicting information to deal with regarding next steps and costs.

In conversations with the sheriffs of Cobb, Hall and Whitfield counties, I have been told that the 287(g) program did not create budget changes for operations or personnel. The 287(g) program is technically considered to be a tool used by those in the jail while doing their regular jobs.

In light of that information, it would be fiscally irresponsible for the Board and me to simply accept the Sheriff's unsubstantiated statements that he must have an additional $3 million and 18 additional deputies without further investigation into the real costs to be incurred.

I am not in favor of just throwing millions of taxpayer dollars to the sheriff without asking questions. The sheriff's budget already has ballooned at a far greater rate than any other department within Gwinnett County.

For example, in just five years, the sheriff's budget has more than doubled from $29.09 million in 2002 to $62.14 million in 2007. Additionally, in 2000, the sheriff's budget was 8.83 percent of the total budget, and today it is 14.26 percent. While some growth may be necessary, given changing times, there is simply no justification for having the inmate cost per day balloon from $34 a day in 2000 to more than $56 a day in 2008.

Too often, the government solution is simply more money and more people. The sheriff is a prime example of this. Total positions authorized by the current members of the Board of Commissioners have increased from 429 to more than 700 in just four years, while overtime has more than doubled in the department to more than $4.7 million in 2007.

There are questions to be asked. Whether Gwinnett joins the ICE 287(g) program is not one of them.

Now that the sheriff as well as my fellow commissioners have joined me in supporting 287(g), we must get the answers to these questions and get with the program.

Charles Bannister is chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners.