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.”