LAWRENCEVILLE -- During a brief press conference held Monday at the Gwinnett County Jail, Sheriff Butch Conway officially announced the beginning of the 287(g) program here.
Conway said it is "a great day for Gwinnett County citizens."
"The program is being implemented as we speak," Conway said. "The deputies are at work today and will be working 24/7 to identify any illegal aliens."
Those 18 deputies returned over the weekend from Charleston, S.C., where they underwent four weeks of training on federal immigration laws, procedures and rules involved in processing aliens.
The program will not be enforced on the street, Conway said, as criminal suspects and drivers will not be asked if they're here legally. The screening, he said, will take place only after an arrest and during the booking process.
"The only checkpoint we have is the back door of the jail," Conway said.
Once deputies determine an arrestee is here illegally, they will begin the process of placing a detainer, which would be signed by a supervisory Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, on him or her.
Conway said ICE would likely take custody of the alien within 48 hours, with an exception for those accused of more serious crimes such as murder or rape.
In those instances, said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais, the suspect would continue through the court system here. If convicted, the alien would serve his or her prison sentence before being turned over to ICE for deportation proceedings.
Gwinnett joins Whitfield, Hall and Cobb counties in enforcing federal immigration laws through 287(g). With Gwinnett being the biggest county of the group, Conway said he expects big numbers.
He estimates there are between 60,000 and 70,000 illegal immigrants in Gwinnett and that the county spends millions of dollars each year incarcerating some of them.
Conway also said the program will help relieve jail overcrowding, a problem it has faced for the last decade.
While the majority of Gwinnettians appear to favor the program, it does have its opposition.
When asked whether the program is designed to lock up and deport "major criminals" or those caught driving without a license, Conway replied, "It is designed to deport people who are here illegally."
"I believe driving without a license is a major crime," Conway added. "We have people being killed by people here illegally who don't understand the rules of the road."
Another concern raised was that of possible racial profiling.
"How would you respond to that?" a reporter asked.
"That's bunk," Conway said. "That's absolute bull. The opposition likes to throw it out there, but it's not true."
Conway said he plans to release a monthly report on the program and its results, including arrest numbers and crime specifics.