LAWRENCEVILLE - A decision on entering Gwinnett's sheriff's department into a federal immigration enforcement program could come next week.
Commissioner Lorraine Green said she plans to ask commissioners to allow Sheriff Butch Conway to hire 18 staffers for the 287(g) program, which trains deputies to begin deportation proceedings on illegal immigrants who have been booked into the county jail.
"We need to quit talking about this and start doing," Green said. "It's a reasonable number. We'd like to do it for as little money as possible, but we want it to be comprehensive and get rid of as many illegals as we can."
Green wants to make the policy decision instead of approving a scheduled resolution encouraging the sheriff to apply for the program. The resolution, pushed by Chairman Charles Bannister, was tabled at the end of February so officials could study the costs, but Bannister called Green's proposal a "political stunt."
A day after visiting the Mecklenburg County jail in North Carolina, which is a model for the program, Bannister said officials should wait until the study is complete.
"It looks as though it could be fantastic. I don't want to have the opportunity destroyed or be not as good as it could be," Bannister said. "If politics should get in the way of a successful program in Gwinnett County, it is not a good thing for Gwinnett County."
Green has announced she will run against Bannister for the chairman's position during the July Republican primary.
Conway said he has studied the program extensively in other communities and believes his request for 18 deputies is conservative, considering the county booked 12,000 foreign-born inmates into the jail last year. Hiring less, he said, would mean deputies could not check the immigration status of every jail inmate and would instead have to choose the more violent or frequent offenders.
"The important thing is getting enough deputies to screen them all," Conway said. "I'm excited and ready to get going."
To begin the application process for the program, Conway sent a letter earlier this month to the assistant secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
He said the county could get approval in as soon as 120 days, but to qualify, Conway said he needs to fill several dozen deputy vacancies and fully open the jail's new tower.
Green has asked for the additional deputies to be added to the county budget in October. Costs are unknown, but she estimated the hiring could cost less than $500,000 in 2008 and about $1.5 million in 2009.
"It is a significant cost, but I think the entire community realizes what the cost of illegal immigrants are to the community," she said. "In the long run, I think this program will pay for itself."