WHAT IS 287(g)?
A section under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that authorizes the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies to permit designated officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions.
The number of deportations through a federal program has more than doubled in Whitfield County in the last two years.
But the entire amount of deportations in Georgia and Tennessee has dropped over the same period.
"At the beginning, we couldn't process every alien that came in. A lot of them had to be let go because we only had a few people trained," said Capt. Wes Lynch, one of seven officers with the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office who were trained in 2008 to enforce immigration law under a program known as 287(g).
So far this fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, the officers have identified 422 people for deportation compared with 379 in 2008.
Of those, 206 people have been deported or accepted voluntary departure in Whitfield County, according to officials with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.
Capt. Lynch said the process is complicated, but his staff has learned how to do it and has become more efficient at it.
"This processing is time consuming and it can be very complicated," Capt. Lynch said. "It can be done but it's a process that (has) certain steps you have to go through. People have to be specially trained to do this, and we didn't get any additional personnel," he said.
"The initial struggle was how do we utilize the personnel that we have to try to get the job done the best that we can, so to begin with we started out slow and carefully," he added.
Now, he said, his staff can process almost everybody who comes into custody who is an illegal immigrant.
Georgia peaked in deportations in 2008, when the four agencies - the Georgia Department of Public Safety and the Cobb County, Hall County and Whitfield County sheriff's offices - already had joined the program, but now it has declined.
Close to 2,000 people have been deported or accepted a voluntary departure so far this year in Georgia, compared with 2,571 last year and more than 3,500 in 2008.
In Tennessee - where only the Davidson County Sheriff's Office and the Tennessee Department of Safety participate in it - only 585 people identified through the 287(g) program have been deported or accepted voluntary departure this fiscal year, compared with 1,510 in 2008 and more than 2,000 in 2008.
Under 287(g), local law enforcement agents receive a four-week training on various topics including immigration law, intercultural relations and how to use the Department of Homeland Security database to help identify criminals and immigration violators.
The agency's priority, ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said, is to identify and deport the most serious criminals.
Nationwide, there are 71 local enforcement agencies that have signed agreements with ICE for 287(g), according to the ICE website.
Deportations and voluntary departures through 287(g) have more than doubled across the country, from 16,441 in 2007 to 41,799 in 2009, according to Mrs. Gonzalez. But this year, only 18,405 have been deported so far.
Mrs. Gonzalez said there's is no single factor that affects the number of illegal immigrants identified and deported through the 287(g).
"(It could be the) demographics of an area, the number of illegal aliens living in an area, the number of arrests, crimes - there really isn't one thing," she said.
Capt. Lynch said that numbers may be dropping because, when immigration enforcement gets tougher, illegal immigrants become more cautious and try not to do anything that might call attention to themselves and risk deportation.
The program has generated heated debated across the country.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and no relation to Mrs. Gonzalez, said his organization opposes 287(g) "because it has been abused and racial profiling has ensued."
Arizona recently passed a law that, among other things, allows police to stop and question people on a "reasonable suspicion" that they might be in the country illegally. The law could go into effect as early as Thursday if it's not stopped by a court.
The state faces several lawsuits, including from the U.S. Department of Justice, which says the immigration law infringes upon the federal government's right to solely enforce immigration laws. Other groups against the law argue it could lead to racial profiling.
Capt. Lynch said there are a lot more benefits to being trained under the 287(g) than problems.
"We have a lot of repeat offenders, and some of them dangerous repeat offenders, and we never knew we could get them removed," he said.
"If nothing else, it saved money in keeping the jail population down and keeping the cost down for the public besides making the public safer," he added.
The only negative aspect is doing the additional work with the same manpower, he said.
Of seven officers trained, only four perform the immigration duties consistently, one per shift, Capt. Lynch said.
And though Capt. Lynch and Mrs. Gonzalez emphasize their priority is deporting violent criminals, they agree anyone who is arrested and is in the country illegally can be sent home.
"We can't turn a blind eye to those who are in the country illegally and, if we encounter individuals who are in violation of the law and can act on that, we will," she said. "But we have been clear about our priorities and our priorities are criminal aliens."
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