ATLANTA — The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department has become the fifth agency in Georgia to be accepted into a federal program that allows local and state officials to enforce federal immigration laws.
The Gwinnett Sheriff’s Department is one of 11 law enforcement agencies nationwide whose acceptance into the Homeland Security Department program was announced Friday, bringing participating agencies nationwide to 77. Gwinnett county’s acceptance was hailed as a victory by anti-illegal immigration groups but decried by civil liberties and human rights groups.
“As a group of Americans of all descriptions pursuing the full and equal application of American immigration law, we could not be more proud of our role in encouraging the expansion of immigration enforcement in Gwinnett,” wrote anti-illegal immigration activist D.A. King in an e-mail to supporters Sunday.
King is founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which seeks stricter laws against illegal immigration and is named for a Georgia teen killed in a traffic accident caused by an illegal immigrant.
Lawyer Azadeh Shashahani, with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Georgia chapter, said she hadn’t seen the terms of the Gwinnett agreement but remains skeptical. She said she’s concerned that the program leads to “rampant racial profiling.”
“Unfortunately, until now, the federal government has shown little interest in holding local agencies accountable,” she said.
Gwinnett, an increasingly diverse county with a large Latino population, plans to devote 18 deputies to the program, which it applied for in March 2008. It will begin once the sheriff’s office has received revised agreements from ICE and all paperwork is signed, Sheriff Butch Conway said in a statement Monday.
“This is a program that has been much needed here in Gwinnett County because we have such a large population of illegal aliens from countries around the world living here,” Conway said. “Now we will have an avenue when someone is arrested to check their immigration status and place a hold on them for deportation if they are not here legally.”
ICE screened inmates at the Gwinnett jail over a 26-day period in January and February and found 68 percent of the foreign-born inmates were in the country illegally. The largest number, 226, had been arrested for driving without a license. The next highest, 154, were arrested on felony drug charges. Other charges ranged from misdemeanors to murder, rape and child molestation.
The program, called 287(g) after the section of immigration law that governs it, trains designated state and local officers in immigration law enforcement and enables them to identify and detain illegal immigrants. In effect since 1996, the program only had one user until 2002, but participation grew rapidly after Congress failed to pass immigration reform bills in 2007 and 2008.
Changes to the agreements were announced Friday after a Government Accountability Office investigation earlier this year found problems with the program administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Homeland Security agency.
The GAO found ICE had not clearly explained to its partner agencies that serious criminal offenders, such as drug smugglers and murderers, are the main targets. As a result, some agencies were focusing on people arrested for speeding, carrying an open container and urinating in public, the GAO said. The report also said ICE was not properly supervising local and state agencies or collecting data needed to assess the program.
Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said the agency is “incorporating many of the GAO’s recommendations.”
Previously, a separate agreement was drawn up for each participating agency, but now all agencies will sign the same standard agreement.
Changes include: partner agencies required to first resolve any criminal charges that led to the arrest of the immigrants before beginning immigration proceedings; creation of three priority levels for the immigrants who are to be arrested and detained; interpretation services required; complaint process established.
In Georgia, Hall, Cobb and Whitfield county sheriff’s departments, as well as the state Department of Public Safety, already participate.