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Activists in Whitfield County, Georgia, are demanding the sheriff's office end its partnership with federal immigration enforcement officers, and they're planning a sit-in on Saturday to protest the program they say destabilizes communities.

Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood stands by the program, saying Wednesday that it "has been positive in addressing the criminal element which has made our communities a safer place to live."

The sit-in is scheduled for Saturday in Dalton at 5 p.m. outside the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office. The group is also hosting a food drive earlier in the day.

Dalton has a large immigrant community. Though some immigrants arrived here in the 1970s to work on Carter's Dam in Chatsworth, the largest influx of Latinos came to the region in the 1980s and '90s.

Global demand for carpet surged at the time. And Dalton, nicknamed the Carpet Capital of the World, had plenty of work available.

The population grew, to the point where 48% of the city's 33,000 people identified as Latino in 2017. In all of Whitfield County, the Hispanic population is estimated to be about 34%, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates.

In 2008, the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office claimed some immigrants were causing crime problems and entered into a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The federal government trained some local officers, and deputies then could run background checks on defendants they believed were in the country illegally.

Whitfield County launched its 287(g) program in early 2008 with seven trained officers, two of whom were assigned full time to immigration duties. The program is administered through ICE and allows sheriffs' offices to train and enforce immigration laws.

ICE now has 287(g) agreements with 77 law enforcement agencies in 21 states. Whitfield is one of seven counties in Georgia where the sheriff's office has an agreement in place.

Chitwood most recently re-upped the partnership on June 16, according to ICE's website.

Sheriffs' offices in Greene and Knox counties in Tennessee also are participants.

Proponents of the program said it effectively targets illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the U.S. and are then deported. Critics said it has unfairly targeted immigrants for misdemeanors, traffic violations and other smaller crimes, while not focusing on criminals who commit serious crimes.

Eros Hernandez and Omar Rodriguez, both 19 and Dalton natives, are at the forefront of the movement in Whitfield County for police reform. They are two of the founders of Northwest Georgia Justice Coalition, a mostly online activist group that has planned demonstrations since the May 25 death of Black American George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Aside from wanting the Confederate statue of General Joseph Johnston removed from downtown Dalton, ending the county's agreement with ICE is at the top of their list of demands.

"We want to bring awareness to this issue, and we think getting rid of this agreement is instrumental to the community as a whole, not just the Hispanic community," Rodriguez said.

Hernandez said the scheduled sit-in is one way to get the attention of Chitwood and community leaders.

"I don't want to say it's a long shot, but either way we're going to try," he said.

Rodriguez and Hernandez also want more transparency in how the sheriff's office pays for the program.

The 287(g) 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 while awaiting ICE pickup.

Chitwood wasn't able to immediately answer a number of questions Wednesday, including how many deportations his office has facilitated and how much money has been spent on the program, but he said he would collect that information.

For more information on the sit-in, visit facebook.com/nwgajusticecoalition.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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