In the last month, the argument over whether Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway should have invited Dustin Inman Society President D.A. King to participate in a 287(g) forum that county Commissioner Marlene Fosque hosted has been the big local political debate.

But is it where the focus should be centered? “No,” according to two Democrats running for the open commission chairman’s seat in 2020.

Lee Thompson and Andy Morgan have said in recent weeks that they see the King debate as more of a distraction. The discussion that they said should be taking place is one focused squarely on 287(g) itself.

“I believe that the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office should end its participation in this program,” Thompson said in a Facebook post Aug. 16. “I am hopeful that the conflict over those who participated in the recent forum will not distract us from continuing to discuss the problems caused by this program and the need to end this program in Gwinnett County.”

At the Aug. 20 commission meeting, Morgan said, “The issue here that we’re now seeing is that this whole point of 287(g) is now being completely taken over by this whole question about Mr. King and his involvement here. We need to go back and focus on the real issue (of) how we deal with the issue with respect to immigration in the county and whether law enforcement is the appropriate measure to address this issue.”

The 287(g) issue in Gwinnett is complex combination of the debate over the program itself; the participation of Gwinnett’s sheriff’s office in the program; and the county’s growing diversity and shifting politics that loom on the political horizon as the 2020 elections approach.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement runs the 287(g) program where local law enforcement departments hold undocumented residents they arrest for various crimes until ICE agents take them into custody.

Immigration itself is a national hot button political issue, particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s push to build a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and headlines about detention centers and families being separated. While 287(g) hasn’t made national headlines, it is an immigration-related issue that has been a major topic lately in Gwinnett.

The back-and-forth debate about Conway inviting King to participate in the 287(g) forum, and the resulting fallout, is just one part of the ongoing debate.

“In Gwinnett, (immigration issues) might be very important,” longtime University of Georgia political science professor and political observer Charles Bullock said. “It has a reputation of being the most diverse county in Georgia, some people would even say the most diverse urban county in America, so it means that a number of Gwinnett voters probably have relatives or neighbors or friends who may have immigration problems.

“A hostile environment encouraged or promoted by one party would influence how those friends and relatives who are eligible to vote might look at their ballots.”

So, just how much of a factor will 287(g) be in the 2020 elections?

“I would be surprised if it’s not a significant issue brought up during the sheriff and the commission elections, and potentially in some of the legislative elections in this area,” said Gwinnett District 1 Commissioner Jace Brooks, who hasn’t made decision on whether he will run for re-election, seek a different political office or exit public office next year.

287(g) part of the diversity discussionOpponents of the county’s participation in 287(g) have been speaking at commission meetings periodically since early in the year, calling on commissioners to stop Conway from participating in the program or to allocate no funding to his office in the 2020 budget to prevent him from participating in it.

The idea of zeroing out the sheriff’s budget is not an idea commissioners from either political party have openly embraced. The sheriff’s office is also responsible for serving warrants and operating the county jail.

Conway asserted in a recent letter to the Daily Post that participation in the 287(g) program is “about criminals committing crimes in Gwinnett County” and “has nothing to do with immigrants or checking immigrant status.”

Former state Sen. Curt Thompson, a Democrat who is running for county commission chairman, said he sees it differently.

“The continued extreme immigration enforcement policies of the Trump administration at the federal level has raised the profile of this issue, and raised the concern of voters across the spectrum who see the actions of both Trump and our local sheriff as rooted in xenophobia rather than genuine concerns regarding public safety,” Thompson said.

Duluth City Councilman and Commission District 1 candidate Kirkland Carden said 287(g) “had a place in a our past, but not in our future” and argued that an ongoing debate in Washington, D.C., over immigration policy brought it to the local level.

“Because of the federal government’s inability to address the problem, or unwillingness to fully address the problem, it has really kicked the burden onto municipalities and counties to try to address it and enforce old, antiquated laws,” he said.

287(g) likely a major issue in sheriff’s raceThe race where the 287(g) debate’s impact will probably be felt the most is the sheriff’s race. The sheriff is a constitutional office in Georgia, giving Conway some autonomy from the commission. Commissioners can only set how much money his office gets, but they can’t control how he spends it.

Two Democrats, Curtis Clemons and Keybo Taylor, are planning to run for the office next year, but Conway hasn’t said if he will run for another term.

Clemons said it doesn’t matter if Conway runs again because the 287(g) issue will be a major issue in the sheriff’s race with or without Conway.

“The Gwinnett County of 30 years ago ... and the Gwinnett County of today are not the same and we need leadership that’s more progressive and accepting of the diverse patchwork of people that we have here that makes Gwinnett such a great place to live,” Clemons said.

Taylor said there will be several issues to address, including 287(g), in next year’s sheriff’s election.

“That’s just one issue out here and there’s just so much other stuff going on,” Taylor said. “We had mechanisms in place to deal with those type of issues before we had 287(g) and I think that some of the things that we used back then would work today without 287(g).”

Meanwhile, Conway reaffirmed his support of 287(g) as he warned against ending Gwinnett’s participation in the program in a written statement to the Daily Post.

“It would be shameful for anyone seeking the Office of the Sheriff to ignore a tool at his/her disposal to promote safety within our community,” Conway said. “We only need to look at Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, to witness case after case of dangerous suspects being released into an unsuspecting community because their new sheriff ended the 287(g) program. It’s a dereliction of duty I don’t want to ever see happen in Gwinnett.”

Immigration and 287(g) as a hot button 2020 topic for commission races too?

So far, several Democrats have announced plans to run for commission seats, but there’s only been speculation about which Republicans might seek those seats. Brooks said talk of 287(g) probably won’t be limited to one political party. Republicans have the advantage in the commission by a narrow 3-2 margin, but Democrats flipped several local seats in 2018.

“My guess is both sides will want to make it an issue because both sides probably see it as a winning issue for their side,” Brooks said.

For candidates running for commission seats, the local 287(g) and immigration debate comes back to one thing: Gwinnett County’s ethnic diversity.

“We have to support the citizens of this county,” said Brooke Siskin, another Democrat who is running for commission chairman.

Commission District 3 candidate Derrick Wilson, a Democrat, said he believes a majority of voters in Gwinnett will not support 287(g).

“The demographics within the county have changed and grown more diverse,” Wilson said. “The participation in the 287g program is of great concern to the people of this great county.”

Democrat Art Sheldon, who is running for commission chairman, said that while it will likely be a bigger issue in the sheriff’s race, the 287(g) debate does touch the Board of Commissioners as well.

“I do believe the commissioners need to take a stand on whether to continue signing off on the Memorandums of Agreement for the Sheriff’s department to work with ICE under the current way the Sheriff’s department has chosen to enforce it,” Sheldon said.

I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta. I eventually wandered away from home and attended the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, Miss., where I first tried my hand at majoring in film for a couple of years. And then political sc