The 287(g) program delegates immigration enforcement authority to specific local police agencies. The Cobb Sheriff's Office is one of the five agencies in Georgia that has entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to participate in enforcement of federal civil immigration laws.
Though initially intended as a measure to combat violent crime and other felonies such as gang activity and drug trafficking, 287(g) programs have in fact undermined public safety, as immigrant communities, fearful of being deported, hesitate to report crime. The Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Police Foundation have both found that participating in 287(g) programs has harmed community policing efforts.
This trend is documented by the ACLU of Georgia report released Monday titled: "Terror and Isolation in Cobb: How Unchecked Police Power under 287(g) had Torn Families Apart and Threatened Public Safety." The report is based on interviews with 10 community members affected by the program as well as five community advocates and attorneys based in Cobb.
As the report documents, in Cobb specifically, there has been a widespread increase in fear to report crime and mistrust in law enforcement as a result of 287(g). Immigrants feel afraid to seek assistance from law enforcement, even when they are the victims of crimes themselves. This factor poses a public safety threat to all county residents. One community member named Joanna mentioned to us that she once even put out the fire in her kitchen herself, because she was afraid to call 911.
In addition, law enforcement agencies that reallocate limited resources towards cracking down on violations such as driving without a license or lack of insurance may have scarce means left with which to combat crimes of violence and other felonies. In Cobb, immigrants disappear into detention for violations such as having a broken tail light or tinted windows on their car. In 2008, Cobb County turned over 3,180 detainees to ICE for deportation. Of those, 2,180, about 69 percent, were arrested for traffic violations.
In addition, the program has encouraged and served as a justification for racial profiling and human rights violations by some police acting as immigration agents. As the ACLU of Georgia report shows, Cobb officers have misused the power granted to them under the agreement by engaging in racial profiling of Latino communities and detaining individuals in the Cobb jail for unconstitutionally prolonged time periods. A telling example is the case of Jonathan, a Latino man who was shopping for jewelry for his girlfriend at Macy's when he was followed by a security guard who then called the Cobb Police. Jonathan was detained by the officer without being informed about the reason. He was subsequently charged with loitering and deported. The loitering charge was later dismissed by the district attorney without a hearing. His family now lives in constant fear of the "seemingly unlimited power of the police to arrest a Latino person for any or no reason at all."
There is currently no meaningful check in place to ensure that local law enforcement do not abuse the program by intimidating and racially profiling immigrant communities in Cobb. A Government Accountability Office investigation earlier this year found ICE was not exercising proper oversight over local or state agencies. This problem is compounded in Georgia, as there is no state legislation banning racial profiling and mandating accountability and transparency for law enforcement.
The minor changes in the program recently announced by the Department of Homeland Security make no serious attempt at discouraging profiling or reducing its negative impact on public safety. In addition, the new MOA actually takes a step backwards in the area of transparency, as it attempts to further shield 287(g) from public scrutiny by declaring that documents related to 287(g) are no longer public records.
In late August, more than 521 organizations across the country, many of which in Georgia, called on the Obama Administration to end 287(g), citing the serious problems associated with the program, including racial profiling. The groups were recently joined in this demand by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In addition, in a recent letter to the Obama administration, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the administration and Congress to do more to end racial profiling by reconsidering the 287(g) program.
The ACLU of Georgia was joined Monday by faith and community leaders from Cobb and around the state in reiterating this demand. 287(g) programs waste local resources and hinder local police ability to effectively protect public safety in Cobb and other communities around the State. It is time for Cobb to walk away from 287(g).
Azadeh N. Shahshahani is National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project Director American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.