In Dalton, candidate for governor Stacey Abrams touts pro-immigrant policies

Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams speaks during a town hall forum at the Dalton Convention Center on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Dalton, Ga. Abrams is running against Republican candidate Brian Kemp in Georgia's November general election.

DALTON, Ga. - Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams said Wednesday night that a program of the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office "terrorizes families."

Though she did not address the local law enforcement agency specifically, she told a packed audience at the Dalton Convention & Visitors Bureau that participation in the 287(g) program destabilizes communities. The program, administered through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, allows sheriff's offices to train and enforce immigration laws.

Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood signed a memorandum of agreement with an ICE associate director to take part in the program in June 2016. The program allows the department's officers to check an ICE database on an inmate at the jail, revealing whether the person could be subject to deportation. The jail can hold the inmate for three days as they wait for ICE officers to pick them up.

During her speech Wednesday, Abrams said the program can actually make communities less safe. She believes immigrants who entered the United States illegally will be less likely to call the police during an emergency.

"If you see a crime, you won't report it if you think reporting a crime means that you are putting your family at risk," Abrams said. "That means criminals go unpunished and uncaught because we've pushed the right people in the shadows."

A spokesperson for the sheriff's office did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday night. But in January 2017, Chitwood told the Times Free Press he believed the program makes the county safer because it allowed the county to help deport violent criminals.

"It addresses a criminal element," he said last year.

Abrams came to Dalton as part of her campaign for governor against Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who overwhelmingly defeated Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in a Republican primary runoff July 24, earning about 70 percent of the vote. Compared to other statewide Democratic candidates in Georgia in recent years, who promised to be moderates, Abrams is unabashedly running a progressive campaign.

On Wednesday night, she spoke about the need for gun control and said she would not back down from her belief in a woman's right to an abortion. She also spoke passionately about the need to remove Confederate statues - or, in the case of Stone Mountain, to at least provide more context about Georgia's history of slavery.

During Abrams' speech, Republican Beau Patton sat in the front row, filming her with a cellphone. Patton unsuccessfully ran for a state representative seat in Dalton last year. He said he is volunteering for Kemp's campaign.

"I'm not a fan," he said after the event. "It is what it is."

Concerning immigration, she said students should be able to enroll in all state universities, regardless of whether they are U.S. citizens. (The Board of Regents bars DACA recipients from attending some schools, including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.) She also said these students should qualify for the HOPE scholarship.

Lawsuits on both issues are still being debated in state and federal courts.

"There are those who say, 'You shouldn't do that because there are tax dollars,'" she told the audience. 'The reality is, it's paid for by the lottery. I promise you: Everybody plays the lottery. So everyone deserves to benefit from it."

In Abrams' bid to win the governor's race, the voters of northwest Georgia likely won't carry her far. This is one of the most conservative regions in the country. In the May 22 primary, in which Abrams defeated Ringgold-native Stacey Evans, she only received 2,658 votes in the northwestern corner of the state: Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Gordon, Murray, Walker and Whitfield counties.

That number was greater than what Evans received here. Still, it represented only 0.6 percent of her total votes in that election.

At the same time, Dalton is trending blue. This is a city with a large immigrant community, where about half of the residents are Latino. Many of them came in the 1980s to work the carpet mills. While they could not vote, their children can. A liberal block is beginning to emerge.

In the six most northwestern counties in the state, all but two precincts voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The exceptions? A couple of downtown Dalton census blocks, where 70 percent of about 1,500 total voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton.

In a room on the first floor of the conference room, the crowd filled all of the about 130 seats. A much larger crowd filled a second floor room during Mike Pence's visit during the 2016 campaign.

Before the event, Abrams said she recognized the shifting dynamics here. But she hopes to pick some voters in the darker red regions, too.

"We have to run in every county, no matter where we are," she said. "Because I want every vote that I can get. What I see in Dalton, what I've seen in Whitfield County, what I saw in Catoosa County and in Dade County, is that these are areas of the state that are hungry for attention and hungry for investment. Everyone wants to be prosperous. But my job isn't to flip every county. It's to get as many voters as I can from every single place."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.