For years, immigrants in the Atlanta suburbs lived in fear that a routine traffic stop would lead to deportation. Thousands of immigrants in the country illegally have been deported for minor offenses, advocates say, because of close ties between county jails and immigration authorities.
But now, there are some new sheriffs in town.
“I’m the sheriff of Gwinnett County for everybody, regardless of your race, regardless of your gender, regardless of your immigration status,” said Keybo Taylor, the sheriff-elect in Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta.
The 2020 election is expected to usher in a major shift in immigration enforcement. On the federal level, the Biden administration plans to rein in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, starting with a temporary moratorium on deportations.
On the local level, a number of sheriffs known for their hardline immigration stances retired or lost their reelection bids. In Georgia, the blue wave that delivered the state to Biden also helped to elect several county sheriffs who have pledged to limit how they cooperate with ICE.
Taylor is a Democrat and the first Black man ever elected to the job. He ran on a promise to get rid of a longstanding cooperation agreement with ICE signed by his Republican predecessor. He says he’ll follow through on that promise the first day he takes office in January.
Taylor says there’s no evidence that the agreement was helping public safety. And, he says, it was hurting trust in law enforcement in his county, where more than one in four residents was born outside the U.S.
“It definitely undermined the confidence and trust and transparency between law enforcement and the community,” said Taylor.
In neighboring Cobb County, Democrat Craig Owens ousted the longtime Republican sheriff. Owens has pledged to end his county’s agreement with ICE, too.
“There’s nothing that we can find anywhere to say the program took a large scale of violent criminals off the road,” Owens said. “From my perspective, it seems like it’s doing more profiling of individuals versus keeping our community safe.”
These 287(g) agreements, as they are formally known, have been around since the mid-2000s. They were supposed to make it easier to identify and deport dangerous criminals.
But in practice, critics say these agreements have created a deportation pipeline — particularly in the Atlanta suburbs, where immigrant advocates say police use traffic violations as a pretext to pull over anyone who looks Latinx, or like an immigrant.
Here’s how it worked, according to advocates. First the immigrant gets pulled over and detained, often for driving without a license or insurance. Then a sheriff’s deputy at the county jail calls ICE.
“It’s created an atmosphere of terror for immigrant communities going about their lives,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, a lawyer with Project South, an advocacy group based in Atlanta.
It’s hard to overstate how relieved those communities are to see these agreements coming to an end.
“We are so, so happy. We were crying here at the office waiting for the results of the election,” said Adelina Nicholls, director and co-founder of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, which has been working toward ending these agreements for years. “This has been a long journey with a lot of suffering, and family separations as well.”
But not all immigrant communities are heaving a sigh of relief.
Several sheriffs known for their hardline stance on immigration fended off challengers who said they would end local 287(g) agreements. High profile sheriffs who won reelection include Sheriff Bill Waybourn in Tarrant County, Texas, and Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff in Pinellas County, Florida.
Waybourn has been particularly outspoken about his support for ICE and its work. He drew national attention for his remarks at a White House press conference last year. Standing alongside the ICE director, Waybourn said that many of the immigrants in his jails are criminals and repeat offenders.
“If we have to turn them loose or they get released, they’re coming back to your neighborhood and my neighborhood,” he said. “These drunks will run over your children and they will run over my children.”
In an interview, Gaultieri said: “The perception of the program leads people to the erroneous belief that it is all bad when it’s not.”
“We have people that are in this country illegally and they’ve committed crimes,” Gualtieri said. “We don’t want to release them back into the community, especially when those crimes are serious crimes.”
Federal immigration enforcement might change next year. But Gualtieri says the sheriff’s office in Pinellas County will not.