Feb 22, 2022 - World

Ditching ICE made communities safer, Georgia sheriffs and activists say

Illustration of a sheriff's badge that has been cracked into pieces reforming.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Sheriffs and advocates in two of metro Atlanta’s most diverse counties say immigrants have more trust in law enforcement and communities are safer one year after cutting ties with a federal immigration program that critics argued led to racial profiling.

Catch up quick: Under 287(g) agreements, local law enforcement officers essentially act as an extension of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and conduct immigration checks on people booked into county jails, potentially resulting in their deportation.

  • Cobb and Gwinnett counties, which until recently were GOP strongholds, elected sheriffs who promised to end the program.
  • Both counties ended the agreements with the feds in January 2021.

Why it matters: Advocates have long said that the 287(g) program eroded Latinos’ trust in law enforcement and discouraged undocumented immigrants from contacting police when they were the victims of — or had information about — a crime.

What they’re saying: “With the 287(g) program in place, I was getting phone calls when a crime was committed in the immigrant community,” says Jerry Gonzalez, the CEO of the GALEO Impact Fund, a 501c4 organization that helped fight the program.

By the numbers: Over the past decade, the Gwinnett Sheriff’s office — led at the time by Butch Conway — ran immigration checks on more than 20,000 immigrants, Mother Jones reported.

  • The department had more 287(g)-related referrals in 2019 and 2020 than any other participating law enforcement agency, accounting for 25% of almost 17,000 ICE interactions through the program in 2020, the AJC reported this past year.

Early on, nonprofits including the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and groups like GALEO Impact Fund organized voters and residents to pressure sheriffs to end the program.

Gwinnett Sheriff Keybo Taylor did just that on his first day in office in January 2021. Roughly three weeks later, Cobb County’s Craig Owens — also newly elected — celebrated the end of the partnership with GLAHR and other advocates.

  • Owens hired a liaison to Latino communities and increased events to build new ties with Latino leaders and neighborhoods.
  • In Gwinnett, Taylor says, the program cost the sheriff’s office as much as $3 million a year to run, and he’s redirected some of that funding to battling human trafficking and gangs.

But, but, but: Adelina Nicholls, the co-founder and executive director of GLAHR, tells Axios that while people are less scared to speak with law enforcement, officers must continue to be educated on racial profiling and civil liberties.

  • People feel more confident going to work, picking up their kids from school, and doing “the regular stuff people do every day,” Nicholls says. “I think at least we are able to breathe better.”
  • “The erosion of trust doesn't change on the flip of a switch,” Gonzalez says. “Trust has to be earned.”

What's next: Activists are still waiting for President Biden to fulfill a campaign promise to end the contracts ICE signed with law enforcement during the Trump administration, Naureen Shah, the senior legislative counsel on immigrants’ rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Axios.

  • Today more than 140 sheriffs participate in the program.
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