Staff Photo by Tim Barber Whitfield County Sheriff's Office Lt. Wes Lynch, left, watches Sgt. Tanya Hill as she enters the names of arrestees to check their citizenship status inside central control at the Whitfield County Jail on Friday.
DALTON, Ga.—The number of immigration violators processed for deportation in Whitfield County through a federal program increased more than 30 percent in 2010, figures show.
Meanwhile, a study by the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute shows 79 percent of people detained nationally for immigration violations were arrested for minor offenses or traffic violations, with 11 percent arrested for felonies or minor drug offenses.
Capt. Wes Lynch, who heads the Whitfield County program, said Wednesday the increase — 609 in 2010 compared with about 400 in 2009 — occurred because officers are becoming better trained in the program. Deportations make the county safer, remove repeat offenders and have led to fewer total arrests per year, he said.
“We are not deporting people for minor traffic violations. We are deporting people for being in the country illegally,” Lynch said. “Most people — not just aliens — encounter law enforcement because of traffic violations. ... I believe people should operate under the rule of law, and it is our job to enforce that law.”
WHAT IS 287(g)?
A section under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that allows designated state and local law enforcement officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions.
But Jerry Gonzalez, an executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials who helped coordinate the study in Georgia, said the high numbers of people detained in Whitfield County and the study results highlight problems with the 287(g) program.
“The program is not working how the Obama administration wanted it to work and is being abused by local law enforcement,” Gonzalez said. “I have no problem deporting people who commit serious crimes. But people are being racially profiled — if they weren’t arrested for a minor traffic violation, they would not be deported.”
Illegal immigration and the response by local, state and federal government is a hot-button political issue. The federal government has not passed recent substantive immigration measures. But many state governments, including Tennessee and Georgia, have passed or are considering laws to allow police and other agencies more ways to check citizenship status as well as to deny certain benefits to illegal immigrants.
The Migration Policy Institute study released in January and information from Whitfield County show how existing federal laws are being used to target illegal immigration in new ways.
The 287(g) program operates under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and has 70 active agreements in 25 states, ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said.
AT A GLANCE
• According to a Pew Hispanic Center report released this month, Georgia ranks seventh in the nation for states with illegal immigration, behind California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.
• An estimated 425,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Georgia, about 4.4 percent of the total population, and about 325,000 hold jobs, comprising about 7 percent of the state’s labor force.
Between October 2009 and September 2010, officers working with the program identified more than 48,491 unauthorized immigrants and ICE deported more than 30,028 of them.
Four Georgia counties and Davidson County in Tennessee participate in the program. A Tennessee law that took effect in January requires all sheriff’s offices to ask arrestees two questions about their citizenship status when they are booked.
Whitfield County launched its 287(g) program in early 2008 with seven trained officers, two of whom were assigned full time to immigration duties.
Of the four Georgia counties, Whitfield has the highest percentage of Hispanics or Latinos at about 31 percent, 2009 census numbers show. Local officials say the numbers may be significantly higher.
Since Whitfield began the program, 1,225 illegal immigrants had been detained as of through Feb. 2 and 789 deported, Barbara Gonzalez said.
In a 2010 report prepared for local officials, Lynch highlighted a felon who had been arrested 17 times in Whitfield County since 1994 and had spent about 536 days in jail at a cost to taxpayers of about $22,000. His arrests ranged from violent felonies to domestic violence to disorderly conduct and alcohol-related offenses.
“There’s nothing in the criminal justice system where we can really remove people that are a danger to the community,” Lynch said. “[Under this program] we can remove them permanently — people that have no right to be here in the first place.”
Jerry Gonzalez argued that the study done by the Migration Policy Institute clearly shows the 287(g) program is not targeting dangerous offenders, particularly in Georgia.
The study of 287(g) programs was conducted from Oct. 1, 2009, to Aug. 2, 2010, in states including California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia. Researchers found that about half the detainees were accused of misdemeanors or traffic offenses and the other of felonies or other serious crimes.
But in the Southeast, including Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield counties in Georgia and Davidson County in Tennessee, the greatest number of detainees was arrested for minor offenses, the study found.
“[S]tate and local officials operate 287(g) programs according to priorities shaped largely by political pressures ... Southeast and Southwest immigrant populations grew rapidly leading to a public backlash and putting pressure on sheriffs and other elected officials to pursue a set of enforcement strategies,” the study says.
TO READ THE STUDY
Georgia legislators have proposed several bills this year to address illegal immigration. One would allow police to check the citizenship status of people picked up for crimes and would fine governments and private businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Others would deny illegal immigrants worker’s compensation benefits or state college enrollment and require a count of illegal immigrants in all public schools and hospitals.
During the study period, 450 people were processed by Whitfield County. Of those, 33 had been arrested in or convicted of major drug offenses, murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, kidnapping or other serious offenses; 61 had been arrested or convicted for minor drug offenses, 136 had been arrested or convicted for misdemeanors or civil offenses and 220 had committed traffic violations.
“It is apparent the majority of offenses in Georgia were noncriminal or minor offenses,” Jerry Gonzalez said. “It is not consistent with what the program was designed to do.”
The study does not call for an end to the 287(g) program, but that it be redone to target serious criminal offenders.
Lynch noted that arrests in Whitfield County quickly dropped from an average of 9,500 a year to about 6,600 when the program was implemented in 2008. Arrest numbers have increased slightly, but are still below those when the program was implemented, he said.
Other factors may play a role, Lynch said, but he credits the program for most of the decrease.
“One of the local federal agents was told by an informant that ‘nobody wants to get in trouble because they don’t want to be deported,’” Lynch said. “And when you deport repeat offenders, they aren’t being arrested again.”
Jerry Gonzalez said he believes other factors have led to the decrease in arrests, including a community reluctant to report crimes, a factor noted in the study.
“When you start targeting a community, members avoid law enforcement, which undermines community policy and public safety,” he said. “Residents should be concerned about the program.”
Lynch insisted the opposite has been true in Whitfield County. He said several people have contacted officers in the program to report crimes involving illegal immigrants.
“We’ve never had anyone call like that before,” Lynch said. “People within the Hispanic community don’t want bad people here either.”
Lynch also stressed that officers question only people who have been arrested for a crime — victims or people reporting crimes are never targets for possible deportation.
“You have to commit a crime — we will never investigate you other than that,” Lynch said. “We did that on purpose to make sure the lines of communication [with the community] don’t break down.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...