ICE agents conducting raids in Atlanta in February, 2017. (Photo by Bryan Cox/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Getty Images)

In Gwinnett and Cobb counties, sheriff candidates are promising to roll back cooperation with ICE. Advocates say they should cut ties completely, while the federal agency threatens retaliation.

When Keybo Taylor started working as a narcotics detective in Gwinnett County, Georgia, in 1986, the suburban county northeast of Atlanta was more than  90 percent white, and fewer than 2 percent of the residents were Hispanic.  

In the coming decades, though, Gwinnett transformed into a majority-nonwhite county. The change was driven by Latinxs; in the 2018 midterms, Gwinnett was required by federal law to offer ballots and other election materials in Spanish, becoming the first county in Georgia to help its residents vote in a language other than English. By 2019, the Hispanic population had reached more than 20 percent.

That change has made the county a focal point for federal immigration agents. Sheriff Butch Conway, who is retiring this year, has pushed a federal partnership with ICE called 287(g)  that has landed more Gwinnett immigrants in detention than any other county that isn’t on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now, after years of rising through law enforcement ranks, Taylor is running for Gwinnett County sheriff and the program is central to his campaign. Taylor has promised to end the office’s participation in 287(g), which is used to funnel undocumented people who are arrested, often for traffic violations and other non-violent crimes, into the nation’s deportation system. His Republican opponent, Lou Solis, is Conway’s chief deputy and is campaigning to keep the county in the program.

About 40 miles west, the sheriff’s race in Cobb County, another populous county in the Atlanta suburbs, includes the same dynamic. Republican incumbent Neil Warren wants to continue 287(g), while Democratic candidate Craig Owens has promised to withdraw from it. 

These races are mirroring other sheriff elections where immigration played out as a central issue—including in the Georgia primaries in June, which saw the Athens sheriff lose his re-election bid—and communities have used local electoral organizing to curtail ICE’s reach.

Ending 287(g) contracts with ICE would shake the federal agency’s grip on Cobb and Gwinnett and serve as a milestone for immigrant rights. “We’re not a border community, but we see the impact of ICE on a daily basis,” said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, a nonprofit organization in Gwinnett. “Family separation has been happening right here in Gwinnett for a really long time,” she added, referring to the federal agency’s decade-plus presence in the sheriff’s department.

But ICE is already threatening to retaliate, even as advocates like Mahmood are intent on pushing the next sheriffs to also end other forms of ICE cooperation. 

For Taylor, “it is the human factor of what 287(g) does” that troubles him. He said the program erodes trust in law enforcement, especially in immigrant communities, and he was concerned about the department engaging in profiling. 

Conway entered Gwinnett’s sheriff’s department into a 287(g) agreement with ICE in 2009, after Cobb became the first Georgia county to do so in 2007. The program authorizes and trains local deputies to act on behalf of federal immigration agents, helping ICE identify, detain, and deport undocumented arrestees.

The program has been sold by Conway and Solis as a way of getting violent criminals off the street and out of the country, even though data has historically shown that people who commit violent crimes make up a negligible fraction of the number that ICE has detained. 

In a phone interview, Taylor pointed to the total number of 287(g) detainers ICE has sought in Gwinnett during the Trump administration. “There’s a jump,” he said. Those numbers have risen from 547 in 2016 to more than 2,000 each of the last three years, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University that requests and analyzes federal data and publishes it online. Taylor also pointed to the lack of data supporting the notion that the program is a valid public safety tool.

The end result, Taylor said: “There’s all kinds of crimes being committed in these neighborhoods that are not being reported because people are afraid they’re going to be deported as well.”

Owens, the challenger in Cobb County, told The Appeal: Political Report that 287(g) “often turns into profiling, looking at Africans, Latinos, Muslims and other immigrants. It causes all types of problems, is expensive to maintain and I don’t see why the county should be involved in it.” His opponent, Warren, did not reply to a request for comment.

TRAC has historically compiled detailed data for the hundreds of thousands of detainers ICE has sought from law enforcement departments across the nation every year. But in 2016, ICE began withholding much of that information. Now the database only has aggregate numbers of detainers, without information on individuals and the circumstances that led to their arrest. TRAC’s resultant lawsuit against ICE is ongoing, said Susan B. Long, the project’s co-director. But the organization’s data between 2003 and 2015 shows that, out of 14,659 detainers ICE requested in Gwinnett, 5,520 were for people who were not convicted of a crime and 2,816 were for people arrested for traffic offenses. Most of the rest were for people charged with nonviolent crimes such as DUI, shoplifting, “fraud – false statement,” and “failure to appear.” 

All told, that’s 92 percent of all the people ICE asked Gwinnett to hand over to them. Violent crimes, such as assault, robbery, and murder, accounted for less than 8 percent of the total. 

When asked about the rise in ICE detainers since 2017, Solis said, “That’s an ICE, presidential policy.” Unwilling to discuss the data, he told an anecdote about three men who he said were undocumented immigrants and were arrested several weeks ago for stabbing and killing a teenager. “Those are three people locked up. Those are the things we’re going after. After they do their sentence in the U.S., they can be deported,” he said. 

When confronted with data showing the low share of violent crimes among the thousands ICE had flagged over the years, Solis told an anecdote about letting two undocumented people go after they were arrested for driving without a license. Finally, when asked whether data is the best way to determine the program’s effectiveness, he said, “That’s your opinion.” 

Solis also said the department’s agreement with ICE did not allow him to release numbers or data from the program, or even speak in general terms about them.

The large numbers of people caught up in deportations after getting arrested for driving without a license—an arrestable offense in Georgia—have led community organizations like the Asian American Advocacy Fund to push the state legislature to legalize driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, said Mahmood. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have this in place. 

Mahmood’s organization has requested arrest data from the 287(g) program from Gwinnett, but she said “they’ve not been forthcoming. … They don’t want information to be accessible.” Her organization is offering voters information on sheriff candidates that focuses on 287(g) in Korean, Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, and Bangla. 

Solis also told the Political Report that ending 287(g) would bring negative consequences in the form of ICE retaliation. The deputy sheriff said he met with ICE Atlanta field office director Thomas P. Giles several months ago. “[He] told me if they’re thrown out, they will assign five senior agents to Gwinnett and target businesses, job sites, and apartments.” He said ICE would then deport whoever they find, and not just those they are seeking. “There are a lot of hard workers, staying out of trouble. It’s not right,” said Solis. 

ICE did not respond to requests for comment.

A similar event occurred in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County in 2018, after Garry McFadden defeated the incumbent sheriff and ended 287(g). ICE immediately launched raids  resulting in at least 200 arrests statewide, mostly of people with no criminal charges or convictions. These events were revealed graphically to a national audience in the recently released Netflix documentary “Immigration Nation.” 

Solis repeated the retaliation warning in a recent virtual debate with Taylor. Afterward, Taylor said, “It’s almost like an ultimatum: either I cooperate with ICE or I’m going to be responsible for what they do in my neighborhoods,” he said. “I take issue with them conducting raids simply because I refuse to participate in 287(g),” he added. “At the end of the day, I still won’t participate.” 

ICE retaliation against local officials is not unusual, according to Oliver Merino, who in 2018 was a Mecklenburg-area community activist and now works at the Washington, D.C.-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “One of the things we’ve seen over the last few years is, even when communities end partnerships, it’s been the federal government—ICE—that steps in to almost force them to maintain the relationship,” said Merino. 

What’s more, Merino said, ending 287(g) doesn’t stop ICE and local sheriffs from other forms of collaboration, such as sharing information regarding arrestees and continuing to honor ICE detainers, which are requests sent by ICE asking that local law enforcement keep detaining people beyond their scheduled release. “One thing we’ve learned is [to ask] … What happens next?” he said. 

Georgia sheriffs can decide whether to comply with these requests, and state organizers have targeted this form of discretionary cooperation as well.

Taylor has not committed to cutting ties with ICE in Gwinnett County beyond ending the 287(g) program. He suggested that his department would still work with ICE if he were elected. “I still believe people committing major crimes, if they’re here in the country illegally, they shouldn’t be here anymore,” he said. “ICE should be notified and then they should be deported.”

Owens, the Cobb challenger, committed to not honor ICE detainers in a candidate questionnaire published by the ACLU of Georgia. In his interview with the Political Report, he noted that federal policies enable other forms of cooperations, such as ICE’s Secure Communities program.

Merino pointed out that Black Lives Matter protests have drawn renewed focus on the broad relationships between local government spending, law enforcement, and social programs. “You hear that getting rid of 287(g) will strengthen the relationships between immigrant communities and police,” he said. “But one thing we understand through Black Lives Matter is that trust has never existed in Black communities and communities of color. … Even if 287(g) ends, there’s more work to be done locally to make communities feel safe.”

This article has been updated with information about Owens’ position on detainers.