LAWRENCEVILLE -- Azadeh Shahshahani roused a crowd to chanting anti-racist slogans in the gymnasium of Saint Lawrence Catholic Church on Saturday, an interpreter at her side.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia leader blasted racial profiling against all races. She called the 287(g) program, initiated three weeks ago in Gwinnett, a means for police to seize and unjustly boot illegal immigrants from the United States.
Hers is a sentiment frequently echoed by 287(g) detractors -- and hotly contested by its supporters.
"We are here to stand up for social justice because we don't want this to continue," said Shahshahani, one of several headliners at an anti-racial profiling forum put on by Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment, or ABLE. "Families have been torn apart ... people have been deported needlessly."
The forum, attended by more than 100 warm-clothed ABLE proponents, illuminated a key point of disagreement between immigrant rights activists and law enforcement leaders working to eradicate Gwinnett of law-breaking, illegal aliens: that enacting deportation proceedings on a local level promotes arrests based on appearance.
The forum was the first of its kind since 18 Sheriff's Department deputies returned from training last month to officially begin 287(g) processing at the Gwinnett County Jail. The program allows local deputies to screen the immigration status of arrestees and turn them over to federal deportation authorities.
Gwinnett joins Whitfield, Hall and Cobb counties in enforcing federal immigration laws through 287(g). ABLE leaders count the Georgia State Patrol as a fifth agency.
"We see that racial profiling is on the increase given the powers that (police) have with 287(g)," said the Rev. Tracy Blagec of ABLE.
That viewpoint is argued by Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway, who vehemently denies any correlation between 287(g) and racial-profiling.
"That argument is just an attempt to distract people from the truth," Conway said in a statement to the Post this week. "No law enforcement agency in Gwinnett County is out targeting any particular group of people ... People who are violating the law are targeted because they are breaking the law. The easiest way to avoid that is to stop violating the law."
The centerpiece of Saturday's forum was testimonials given by people of various ethnic backgrounds who consider themselves racial-profiling victims. Several Spanish-speaking men shared their frustrations over local police who've issued them traffic tickets, while a black man said an unjustified arrest in California by racist police 38 years ago continues to haunt him today. ABLE officials asked that none be identified.
ACLU of Georgia plans to compile the stories into a human rights report, with the ultimate goal of passing legislation meant to thwart racial profiling in the next two sessions.
Blagec said the legislation -- most recently introduced as Senate Bill 41 -- will call for greater accountability on the part of law enforcement.
"They will have to document their (traffic) stops, the demographic information of anyone stopped, the reason for the stop ... and the alleged violation," Blagec said.
Conway estimates there are between 60,000 and 70,000 illegal immigrants in Gwinnett and that the county spends millions each year incarcerating some of them. He believes 287(g) will help alleviate the longstanding issue of jail overcrowding.
Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais said a year-to-year comparison shows the frequency of immigrant arrests has slowed in light of 287(g).
Since the program's Nov. 16 activation, 517 foreign-born suspects have been booked at the Gwinnett County Jail -- a roughly 18 percent dip over the same period a year ago.
"It does appear that word has gotten out," Bourbonnais said. "There appears to be some correlation with 287(g) starting."
The arrest figures could not be divided between legal and illegal immigrants this week, she said.
And it was unclear how many of those recently arrested have been deported, as deputies in charge of verifying immigration status are still getting acclimated to the system, Bourbonnais said.
Sheriff's Department officials plan to release monthly tabulations to the media that detail 287(g) activity in Gwinnett, she said.
Once the kinks are worked out, officials expect that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will take custody of aliens within 48 hours. An exception stands for those accused of more serious crimes such as murder or rape. They will be prosecuted in Gwinnett courts.
Blagec, of ABLE, said attendance at Saturday's forum -- as well as two previous forums in Gwinnett and Cobb counties -- testified to a feeling of helplessness among some Georgia citizens.
"People don't know what to do. They feel like they're at the mercy of law enforcement and unchecked power," she said. "That all these people have shown up is a testimony to the fact that they need help, and our state needs help."
Conway drew a clear distinction between criminal accusations against aliens and their initial infraction -- illegally crossing the border.
"Just for the record, no one is deported by ICE for driving without a license or any other crime," he said. "They are deported because they entered the country illegally. The charge against them is totally separate."