Gwinnett not named in 287(g) lawsuit

LAWRENCEVILLE -- No Gwinnett County officials are named in a potential class-action lawsuit filed recently in federal court that challenges the merits of the 287(g) deportation program.

Experts believe the suit is the first of its kind. Gwinnett is the largest of four Georgia counties participating in the program, which authorizes local law enforcement to begin deportation proceedings on arrestees.

The 287(g) program, launched in Gwinnett last November, has been fodder for immigrant rights supporters who've staged rallies and summits in Gwinnett decrying it. Detractors contend the fast-track deportation program encourages racial profiling and discourages immigrants from reporting crimes, in fear of being deported.

Supporters, which include Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway and high-ranking government officials, hail the program as a means to ease jail crowding and save the county millions, while pulling law-breakers by the hundreds from streets and neighborhoods.

The lawsuit, filed last week on behalf of three immigrants in Cobb County, names U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton, Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, an investigator for the Georgia Department of Public Safety and other officials as defendants.

Erik Meder, the attorney who filed the suit, said he's aware of controversy spurred by Gwinnett's participation in the program, but he opted to focus primarily on Cobb County, where he's based.

As for the suit's impetus, Meder said, "It's just an accumulation of hearing the stories from people, who are good people, and witnessing what this does to their lives."

The lawsuit seeks to define the class as ''all Hispanic persons who have been or will be restrained and interrogated within the State of Georgia'' by local authorities enforcing federal immigration law under an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As of late September, the 287(g) program had been used to identify 14,692 illegal immigrants in Georgia for deportation in the four years since Cobb became the first county in the state to launch the program, according to ICE.

Meder contends that the program is unconstitutional because it delegates federal power to local authorities with insufficient oversight.

Gwinnett County Jail officials have estimated about 70 percent of foreign-born inmates are in the United States illegally.

Ironically, Meder said that in cases like Gwinnett's, 287(g) has served to keep undocumented immigrants in place, especially in a sour economy.

"One consequence of the ramped-up enforcement is to trap a population in this country," he said. "People who would have left two or three years ago with every intention of returning are afraid of leaving, because they don't think they'll get back in. It's a labor-driven market."

Meder said a federal judge in Atlanta will have 60 days to decide whether or not to certify the suit as class-action or not.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.