A controversial program to identify illegal immigrants in the Gwinnett County Jail has been in operation a little more than a year, and officials say the program already is saving money and bed space.
So far, deputies have identified 3,034 inmates who were in the United States illegally, about half of whom ultimately were removed from the country after immigration proceedings.
“I’m very pleased with the program so far,” Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said. “It has saved the county millions of dollars.”
As part of the county’s participation in a local-federal partnership called the 287(g) program, which officially began in November 2009, 18 sheriff’s deputies were trained to enforce certain federal immigration laws. Inmates suspected of being in the country illegally are turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after their cases are disposed of. ICE then will initiate deportation proceedings against them. The detainees still have the opportunity to go before an immigration judge to plead their case.
Jail statistics also do little to dispel one of the main complaints about such local law enforcement partnerships with ICE. Despite the 287(g) program’s stated goal of deporting criminal illegal immigrants who pose a danger to public safety, it often nets minor offenders. About 470 inmates who were detained for ICE were charged with driving without a license, and 1,264 were charged with some other traffic violation. That’s almost half the total number of detainees from Gwinnett.
He believes the decline in foreign-born inmates is a direct result of illegal immigrants leaving Gwinnett or ceasing to drive to avoid being jailed and deported.
Lilburn Police Chief John Davidson said the program probably has made the county safer.
“Obviously, if 1,400 offenders are gone from our community, that is going to have an overall impact on crime,” Davidson said. “These are people that came into contact with the sheriff because they were committing some sort of criminal offense.”
Pro-immigrant groups have been critical of the 287(g) program, and Gwinnett’s partnership is no exception. Opponents say the program promotes racial profiling, tears apart families and causes distrust between law enforcement and the immigrant communities they are tasked with policing. The ACLU has called for the Obama administration to end the program, saying it is fundamentally flawed.
“I think the whole system encourages racial profiling,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Georgia. “The stated purpose is to go after the most serious offenders and to make our community safer, but in some situations it’s not really clear why people are being pulled over in the first place.”
Several other Georgia law enforcement agencies, including the Roswell Police Department and the Cherokee and Forsyth sheriff’s departments, have asked to join the program. However, ICE has not approved any new programs in Georgia in 2010, citing funding issues.
U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) supports 287(g) and hopes to one day expand it.
“The 287(g) program is a great program and it works hand in glove with the Secure Communities initiative,” Gingrey said. “I think both those programs are necessary. I would like to see every county participate.”