Last week, a Guatemalan man who was brought to the Whitfield County jail for driving on a suspended license was interviewed by sheriff’s office employees who are trained as immigration officers. After it was discovered the man had previous arrests and convictions for DUI and attempting to elude a police officer, he was processed for deportation and transferred into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in Atlanta.
A year ago this month, two residents of Mexico who were determined to be “unlawfully present” in the U.S. by county immigration officers were arrested. One man was charged with possession of cocaine and drug-related objects, and had prior arrests and convictions for carrying a concealed weapon and criminal trespass. Another man who was charged with possession of schedule III narcotics and drugs not in the original container had previous arrests and convictions for DUI and probation violation.
Those men were also scheduled for deportation by ICE. Dozens of other similar cases in the last few years lead law enforcement officials to say the 287(g) program — which helps ICE-trained county officers identify inmates who are in the country illegally and have criminal backgrounds — is a success.
But in a USA Today story detailing the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed budget for the coming year, the agency is saying it will not sign new contracts for 287(g) and will eliminate the least productive of the programs, saving the agency $17 million.
In Dalton on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he did not agree with the Obama administration’s plan to curtail 287(g), but said Whitfield County will get to keep its program.
Maj. John Gibson with the sheriff’s office said officials there are aware cuts are planned.
“They’ll see we’ve been successful,” he said of any budget cut wielders with the Department of Homeland Security. “We’ve been tremendously successful — we’ve been able to catch some serious felony criminals through this program and (it’s) helping to process illegal aliens.”
Gibson said he’s looked at a proposed “Secure Communities” federal government program that “checks the fingerprints of all people booked into local jails against federal immigration databases,” according to USA Today.
“I got some information a couple of weeks ago about (it),” he said. “I’ve looked at Secure Communities, but I say if it’s not broke don’t try to fix it ... it would be a great shame if 287(g) is discontinued here locally. All our statistical data proves that it’s successful.”
Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which “supports a low-immigration, pro-immigrant vision of the United States that admits fewer immigrants but affords a warmer welcome for those who are admitted,” has looked at 287(g) and the proposed Secure Communities program, and found the latter lacking.
“Secure Communities only identifies between 10 and 50 percent of the actual number of criminal aliens that are being arrested,” she said. “That’s letting a lot of the worst of the worst fall between the cracks and (being) potentially released back into the community. 287(g) is much more comprehensive and thorough in identifying folks ... besides that, you have 287(g) is leveraging local resources as well as the federal training program to get the job done. So it’s a lot more cost-effective ... it gives us much more bang for the buck than Secure Communities.”
Vaughan said the national push to cut back on 287(g) programs is “task force-oriented” rather than “jail-oriented,” like Whitfield County’s program.
“This notion of unproductive is in the eye of the beholder, because I consider 287(g) programs to be very hopeful and useful even if they’re not making a lot of arrests,” she said. “I’m not so sure what the (Obama) administration’s definition of productive is going to be ... there are a number of organized groups that are opposed to 287(g) and the program that they’re most opposed to is the task force. So this may be more of a political gesture than anything else, although the truth is the Obama administration has not been supportive of 287(g) in any form whatsoever.”
Vaughan said the $17 million cut that will waylay many 287(g) programs around the country may just be the initial implementation of a far-reaching plan.
“This may just be the first step, but they can’t get away with eliminating the program entirely because there’s a lot of support in Congress and among the sheriffs nationwide for 287(g),” she explained. “So they can’t get away with eliminating it entirely, so they’re going to try to starve it to death. They don’t want to approve any new agreements, so this is kind of a first move.”
Father Paul Williams of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church — which has 10,000 members, most of them Latino — said law enforcement has changed the way it utilizes 287(g).
“The problem is 287(g) moved the bar and began to include lesser offenses, whereas we had been going after violent, sexual and felony offenders,” he said. “It became where traffic offenders who were here in the country illegally were being deported.”
Williams called the Obama administration’s initial implementation of 287(g) — along with immigration reform legislated by the General Assembly last year — a “twofold storm” that hit the Hispanic community in Dalton.
“The new Georgia legislation resulted in more deportations,” he said. “They were deporting mothers and 18-, 19-year-old kids. I got a lot of phone calls (saying), ‘My son’s in jail, can you help him out?’ Then Obama changed the focus back to criminals and not low-level offenders, and the (Latino) community breathed a sigh of relief then.”
Williams said by August church attendance at St. Joseph’s was “back in full and growing.” He said what he is looking at now is what 287(g) defunding will mean.
“If the 287(g) focus in Whitfield County remains on criminal offenders — and by that I don’t mean the redefinition of criminals to mean low-level offenders — then 287(g) is a good program,” he said. “But if it’s used to round up anyone who has contact with police for any reason, then I hope that we would change it — not focus on traffic offenders but serious criminals.”
A positive sign, he said, is that in the last year the number of phone calls he’s gotten from parishioners in trouble with the law has decreased.
For immigration reform
Williams said he is not against reform.
“I’m for immigration reform, which I think should start at securing the borders, like a lot of people agree with,” he said. “Because you see, securing the borders protects my parishioners, because I have people in my parish who have disappeared in Mexico because they crossed the border illegally, and when they crossed they disappeared. In Mexico, that usually means they were killed. And so, for me, securing the borders is a no-brainer. So secure the borders, but be just and kind to the people who are here, who have homesteads, who have children who were born and raised here, children who speak English with a southern accent.”
Williams said there are young people in his congregation who were not born here and are being treated as if any potential contributions they might offer are not wanted.
“I have kids who have been here since they were (age) one who are told they don’t have a future because they can’t go to Georgia colleges, can’t get a Social Security number, can’t get a driver’s license, they can’t get work,” he said. “So what do they have to do? They have to move from Georgia because they’re being told they’re undesirable ... I want the young people treated fairly and given a chance. I would be in favor of a work permit.”
Williams said he does not believe in the “existential argument” — that Latinos being here without being officially citizens is a crime.
“Help those pulled over without a license get a license, so they can get insurance, be tracked and begin to pay taxes,” he said, citing a program being used in California. “To accommodate people who came for economic reasons (would be) an encouragement to U.S. businesses.”
By the numbers
A breakdown of 287(g) activity in 2011 shows 672 inmates interviewed who were suspected of being illegal aliens, with 443 detained for further evaluation. Fifteen were found to be aggravated felons; 358 were ordered to appear in court for adjudication of offenses; 37 were found to have been deported, re-entering the country but processed for removal again; and 13 were already ordered to be deported. Two were found not to have committed serious crimes but were still in the country illegally.
In 2010, there were 979 inmates interviewed and 609 inmates evaluated. Of those, 20 were found to be aggravated felons, 475 were ordered to appear in court, 48 were found to be re-entries and 13 were already in deportation status.
Capt. Wes Lynch, who heads up the 287(g) program at the sheriff’s office, said the numbers are down for a reason.
“Many of the recidivist criminal aliens have been removed from the community and this affects the numbers,” he said. “Also, arrests of criminal aliens, in general, have been down. And we are encountering more and more aliens or inmates who were formerly aliens who now have some sort of legal status or citizenship. We did a study on the local level last year and determined that, of the illegal aliens that we encounter who have committed serious offenses, more than half have had no criminal history up to that date. This may be due to the fact that we have no record of their conduct in their home country. In any case, it shows that we cannot rely solely on an alien’s criminal history to determine if they are a threat to the community.”
— Source: Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office