{child_flags:featured}Sparks fly at meeting on Gwinnett jail immigration program

{child_byline}By Isabel Hughes




“You’re a white supremacist!” one woman shouted from the back left side of the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center auditorium.

“You’re a coward and a sorry little...” a man yelled several minutes later from the opposite back corner, leaving his sentence unfinished.

The comments, which were directed at two separate panelists, gave voice to tensions that, at times, ran high through GJAC’s auditorium Wednesday night during a “community engagement discussion” about the Gwinnett County Jail’s 287(g) program.

A partnership between state or local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, that allows local jurisdictions to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement, 287(g) has been a controversial issue in Gwinnett in recent months, largely sparked by Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway’s anticipated renewal — and then official one-year reinstatement — of the program.

Wednesday’s discussion about 287(g), which was organized by Gwinnett County District 4 Commissioner Marlene Fosque and featured six panelists — three from what Fosque called the “benefits,” or pro-287(g) side, and three from the “impact,” or anti-287(g) side — was intended to foster a dialogue between the program’s supporters and opponents, the commissioner said.

“Our sheriff’s department has participated in the 287(g) program for about 10 years, yet no one has brought the two sides together to decide what are the benefits of 287(g) and decide what is the impact,” Fosque said. “I’m a newly elected commissioner, so I’m trying to do new things. I pray at the end of this discussion, (attendees) walk away with a different perspective, or at least a new perspective.”

While Fosque said it remains to be seen whether attendees’ perspectives were ultimately changed, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.

With businesswoman Andrea Rivera, District 99 State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero and local attorney Antonio Molina on the anti-287(g) side and Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Deputy Shannon Volkodav, ICE Southern Region Communications Director Bryan Cox and D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, which pushes for tougher immigration laws but has been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-immigrant hate group, on the pro-287(g) side, the discussion ranged from quotations of bible verses to racial profiling to what ICE’s presence in Gwinnett will be if 287(g) goes away.

The two sides did agree on one thing, however: fear plays a large role in immigration discussions, though for different reasons.

“This is a conversation about fear,” Rivera said. “People have had encounters that (contribute) to that, but it’s also a fear (of immigrants) that’s been imposed on all of us by politicians and others. But one of the reasons that most our parents and grandparents or great grandparents came here is because they were looking for a different life and for a different way of living.”

For many immigrants, especially ones who are undocumented, their fear is different than what Rivera spoke of — it’s a fear of being targeted because of their skin color or immigration status.

But Cox said much of the immigration-related fear, especially when it pertains to 287(g), is unfounded.

“There is a lot of fear in the community; of that, we agree. Both sides speak to fear in the community,” Cox said. “However, that is based on a significant amount of misinformation. ICE does not do any type of random, indiscriminate enforcement in Gwinnett County, or anywhere.

“When our officers go out for the day to make arrests, they quite literally have in hand a target list. They’re going to a specific place, looking for a specific person.”

Similarly, Volkodav said, 287(g)-trained deputies, or any other law enforcement in Gwinnett, are not asking residents about their immigration status — the only place a county law enforcement officer can question someone’s immigration status is when he or she has been brought to the jail and is charged with a crime.

Then, too, it’s only one of the specially trained 287(g) deputies who can do the questioning.

“The reality is, 287(g) focuses solely on criminal offenders. The only way you’re going to encounter 287(g) is if you’re charged with a crime,” Cox said. “Currently, ICE goes to the jail and takes custody of a criminal offender, and only that criminal offender. The reality is, in the jurisdictions that don’t work with ICE, this agency has no choice but to send ICE officers into the community to find those criminals. With 287(g), we go to the jail, arrest the target and only the target. Without 287(g), you will see an increased ICE presence; the agency will have no choice but to send more officers onto the streets of Gwinnett County to find those same persons.

“The result of that is, when you’re looking for that target, we also would be more likely to encounter other persons in the country who are in violation of federal immigration law,” Cox continued. “So, if your position is that you don’t like ICE and you don’t want ICE enforcement, the reality is, 287(g) is your best friend, because this is a program that focuses exclusively on the subset of (undocumented) individuals who commit criminal offenses.”

While Cox’s words likely didn’t do much to dissuade fear of ICE, Fosque told the Daily Post she felt confident the evening opened the eyes of both pro- and anti-287(g) attendees.

“I think it accomplished an opening up of perspectives on how 287(g) operates, as well as the emotions about the impact,” Fosque said. “That was my whole point — for both sides, the benefits as well as the impacts, to really understand each other. That’s what I think it did, and I think it accomplished that goal. It didn’t necessarily change minds, but it (offered) the opportunity just to listen to different viewpoints and educate people.”

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Crime Reporter

Isabel is a crime and health reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post. She graduated from Emory University in 2016 with a B.A. in international studies. She is originally from the Boston area.

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