DALTON, Ga. — The Whitfield County Sheriff’s Department is one of the latest additions to the federal program that trains local officers to enforce immigration law.
Although not fully implemented yet, Lt. Wesley Lynch, one of six officers who received training for the 287(g) program in February, said they have processed a few inmates as officers gradually learn to use the new equipment.
“It’s not a simple process,” said Lt. Lynch, who handles immigration issues for the Sheriff’s Department, said. “We don’t want to start doing this and start doing it wrong.”
The program allows certain Whitfield law enforcement officers to act as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in the confines of the jail.
Lt. Lynch stressed that the sheriff’s department doesn’t have the authority to arrest foreign nationals simply for immigration violations. It is, though, a way for local law enforcement to look among detainees for people who might have illegally immigrated to the United States.
“We know we’re focusing on people who have already made some criminal offense — or at least have allegedly done so,” he said.
But some Hispanic residents and organizations of the area fear officers will start checking the legal status of everyone, even those they stop only for a minor traffic violation.
COBB COUNTY 287(g)
From July 1, 2007, through May 31, 2008, Cobb County Sheriff’s Department deputies and ICE have:
* interviewed 4,652 foreign-born inmates
* placed immigration holds and started initial deportation proceedings against 2,976
* ICE has picked up 2,195
Source: Cobb County Sheriff’s Department Web site
“People are very afraid, they don’t go out anymore, the streets look empty during the weekends because no one wants to drive,” Sara Sanchez, who recently became a U.S. citizen, said speaking Spanish.
She said the fear effect the new program is having has even shown its impact at church.
“The church was practically empty last Sunday. People don’t want to risk being stopped (by law enforcement officers),” Ms. Sanchez said.
As state governments have become more frustrated by a lack of action on behalf of the U.S. Congress to address illegal immigration, interest has grown in the 287(g) program.
Originally created when the Immigration and Nationality Act passed in 1996, only the recent push has gotten the program implemented in a total of 47 law enforcement departments nationwide.
Now there are four departments in Georgia, with the addition of Whitfield County, and there is one in Tennessee.
In Cobb County, Ga., the program has been in effect for nearly a year.
According to the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, 46.5 percent of the people detained under the program in Cobb County initially came to the attention of law enforcement because of a traffic violations, such as speeding or not wearing a seat belt.
The Latino Alliance, a non-profit organization in Atlanta, reported it has been documenting the arrests since the program was implemented last July.
“Racial profiling has been a result of this program,” Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the alliance, said. “The American dream literally becomes the American nightmare for these people,” she added.
Dalton resident Francisco Palacios said the undocumented immigrants he knows are terrified to drive, for fear that they will be arrested for not having a license and deported.
“I can tell you right now, people hate to be driving,” he said.
Dalton-based ICE agent Steve Peluso said that by and large the local officers trained in the program are those working in county jails.
For years, local authorities could do nothing about inmates they knew were in violation of federal immigration law, and the federal agencies did not have enough staff to meet demand.
Agent Peluso said using local officers to process potentially illegal immigrants is “a force multiplier,” enabling Immigration and Customs Enforcement to have a greater impact with a limited number of agents.
The 287(g) program allows deputies to check the status of anybody whose legal status is in question, Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood said.
“If someone does not have proper documentation and does not prove citizenship, then we can check through this program,” he said.
Still, Lt. Lynch said, “Most of the people we’re processing right now, they’re major offenders.”
The Coalition of Latin Leaders said in a written statement they don’t think the 287(g) program is the solution to the undocumented immigration issue, and they oppose its implementation in the county.
Among their reasons was the fear of families being separated as a result of the program.
“We’ve experienced many sad cases where the families are divided and the children are left without the care of their parents,” read the statement.
Whitfield County Commissioner Mike Cowan said he hopes the program will be a deterrent to illegal immigrants here who might commit crimes.
“If you are a criminal-minded individual,” he said, “you might think twice about your activities if you think, ‘If I do get picked up, I’m gone.’”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...