Commissioners approve immigration detainment agreement amid opposition

Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mike Boyd addresses county commissioners on Tuesday about renewing an agreement with the federal government that allows the office to detain jail inmates for immigration officials. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

Gwinnett County commissioners agreed to let Sheriff Butch Conway’s office renew its agreement to participate in a federal immigration detainment program, but some people are calling on the commission to reconsider the decision.

Since 2009, the Sheriff Butch Conway’s Office has had an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement where specially trained deputies can act as immigration agents under the supervision of ICE officials. Such agreements are allowed under Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Sheriff’s Office officials said they’ve had success with the program since the partnership began.

“It’s my responsibility to assist the federal government in identifying illegal aliens committing crimes in Gwinnett County,” Conway said in a statement.

The new agreement continues the Sheriff’s Office participation in the program through June 30, 2019. It stipulates that deputies who are trained to act as immigration enforcement agents are only allowed to carry out those duties that ICE officials tell them to perform.

The office has interviewed 38,088 inmates about immigration issues and placed detainers for ICE on 13,346 people since the program began, according to statistics on the Sheriff’s Office website.

Of the detainees, 6,788 were detained with traffic violations, including driving under the influence, while 1,614 were detained with a drivers license violation only. There were 29,210 charges under the program since 2009.

“Each year the program is audited by the Department of Homeland Security to make sure it’s in compliance with standards, and this past year, the program was recognized by the Department of Homeland Security as a program of excellence,” Chief Deputy Mike Boyd told commissioners. “The sheriff believes this is important to addressing crime.”

Whenever a person is arrested and brought to the county jail, their immigration status is checked and a detainer is placed on them for immigration officials if the person is deemed to be in the country illegally, according to the Sheriff’s Office website.

The office says on its website that it does not directly deport anyone, but said people who are in the country illegally are turned over to ICE once their cases are finished in the local courts. Immigration officials can then begin deportation proceedings.

The people who spoke against the agreement said it does more harm to the county and law enforcement’s relationship with the community than it does to help it.

“We do think 287(g) is undermining public trust in law enforcement in Gwinnett County, especially in the Latin American community,” Latin American Association Director of Policy and Advocacy David Schaefer said. “It may lead to under reporting of crimes for fear that those who contact the Sheriff’s Office may have a fear of being deported.”

Schaefer said it raises a number of issues ranging from under reported crimes to families, where the parents are in the country illegally while their children are U.S. citizens, being split up.

Citing Georgia statistics from a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report, Schaefer said 11,421 U.S. citizens saw spouses who were undocumented residents taken into ICE custody through detainers between 2009 and 2013. He added 40,111 children who are U.S. citizens saw parents who are undocumented residents taken into custody during that time.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘What’s good for our community,’ ” Schafer said. “Is it better to work with communities in terms of helping them build confidence to report crimes? And how much good does it do us to be taking parents out of families when we’ve got a situation where these families are already struggling to make a living when we’re effectively taking the wage earner out of the home?”

Lawrenceville resident Jo Ann Weiss said she has several of her students at Gwinnett Technical College who are the children of immigrants, including some who are undocumented. She backed opponents of the agreement, saying it was the wrong decision for commissioners to make. She called on them to reverse the vote to approve the agreement.

“I hear some of their stories and I’ve done some of my own research on (287(g)) and truly feel that it’s a flawed system,” she said after the commission meeting. “It’s a flawed program that is obsolete and it’s a waste of money for Gwinnett County. On top of other issues, it’s a waste of taxpayer money.

“It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s not locating those hardened criminals. It’s separating families. It is undermining trust in the community.”

Antonio Molina told commissioners that he felt the agreement send the wrong message about the county, pointing out that county leaders have worked over the years to gain the trust of Gwinnett diverse communities.

“It sends a mixed message,” Molina said. “There are a lot of families that are very worried about coming to the police and letting them know what’s occurring under their own roofs at times because they have a fear that if they do come to the police, and make the call, the first thing that’s going to happen to them is that they’re going to get deported.”

Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said the commission is standing behind Conway on this issue. She added that although the commission voted on approval of the agreement, the sheriff technically had the authority to enter the agreement without the commission’s consent.

“The sheriff could approve it on his own if he wanted to,” she said. “He as a courtesy sends it to us and we put it through our process. In terms of the value of the program, the sheriff is very supportive of it … We support him in what he believes the program is doing. If he thinks it’s having a positive effect, then we’re supportive of his request.”

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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