Activists keeping watch that law enforcement doesn't turn to profiling
by Kate Brumback
August 06, 2009 01:00 AM | 1066 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ATLANTA - Immigrant rights groups say they will be watching closely as Gwinnett County launches a program that gives the sheriff's department more power to enforce federal immigration laws.

Advocates for immigrants say they worry the push could lead to racial profiling. Their response ranges from setting up a legal defense fund for people detained under the new program to pushing for anti-racial profiling legislation at the state level to pressing the federal Homeland Security Department to ensure the program is implemented properly.

"Ultimately, what we are calling for is for the Obama administration to address the serious concern of racial profiling that comes with 287(g)," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Alliance of Latino Elected Officials.

The 287(g) program, named for the section of immigration law that it governs, trains state and local officers in immigration law enforcement and enables them to identify and detain illegal immigrants. Including 11 agencies approved last month, a total of 77 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. participate.

Critics have long said the program, which took effect in 1996 but was little used until 2006, leads to people who look Hispanic being stopped for minor offenses, detained and possibly deported.

In the Georgia counties where the program is already in place - Hall, Cobb and Whitfield - immigrant rights and civil liberties groups say racial profiling is a problem. The sheriff's departments in those counties deny that, saying that immigration status isn't determined until someone has been booked into the jail on another charge.

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office examined the program, which is administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and said ICE had not clearly explained to local law enforcement agencies that serious criminal offenders, such as drug smugglers and murderers, should be the main targets.

Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, says changes have been made to incorporate the GAO's suggestions into a revamped agreement to be signed by all participating agencies.

Some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said the changes don't go far enough. Rev. Tracy Blagec of the faith-based group Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment, or ABLE, said she was disappointed that the Obama administration approved 11 new 287(g) agreements last month.

"We're hoping it won't even go into effect," she said, citing hopes that immigration reform being discussed in Congress could eliminate or overhaul the program.

There is no date set for Gwinnett's agreement to go into effect. The sheriff's department and ICE are in the process of signing the agreement, said Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler. Then, 18 new deputies will have to be hired and trained to take the place of the 18 who will be devoted to the new program. The 287(g) deputies will also have to be trained by ICE, said sheriff's spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais.

The ACLU and ABLE on Saturday held a meeting in the Gwinnett County town of Lilburn to kick off a campaign to push for anti-racial profiling legislation. It drew about 200 people.

"It seems with the passage and implementation of 287(g) agreements in Georgia there is even more of a need now for anti-racial profiling legislation," said ACLU lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani.

She cited a test run in January and February when ICE screened inmates at the Gwinnett jail over a 26-day period and found 68 percent of the 914 foreign-born inmates were in the country illegally. The largest number, 226, had been arrested for driving without a license.

"That by itself goes to show that we can't be sure the 287(g) program will be used in Gwinnett County to target the most serious criminals," Shahshahani said.

The second most common reason for arrests, at 154, was felony drug charges. Other charges ranged from misdemeanors to murder, rape and child molestation.

But Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway has said that of all the foreign-born inmates in the jail during the test, nearly half had a criminal history.

Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said her group is responding by organizing a fund to help pay for the legal defense of illegal immigrants who find themselves in deportation proceedings.
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