ATLANTA - A 2-year-old program that gives the Cobb County sheriff's office power to enforce federal immigration laws has led to racial profiling and other problems, a civil liberties group said in a report released Monday.
"Terror and isolation in Cobb: How Unchecked Police Power under 287(g) Has Torn Families Apart and Threatened Public Safety" also claims that immigrants have been unnecessarily detained under Cobb County's 287(g) program. The program, is named for the section of immigration law that governs it.
The report is based on interviews with 10 residents who have been affected by the program and five community advocates and attorneys based in Cobb County, said report editor Azadeh Shahshahani of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.
"Cobb County residents who appear to be foreign-born have been subjected to rampant racial profiling and are routinely picked up by the police for minor or nonexistent violations," the report said. "Families have been torn apart as people are arrested on their way to conduct everyday business, leaving many wary of leaving their homes."
Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren did not return a phone call seeking comment about the program and did not respond to questions sent by e-mail.
The report said the program causes immigrants to distrust law enforcement, making them less likely to report crimes and emboldening criminals.
"We had someone call us. He was arrested for false ID. He was walking down the street. A police officer came up to him and asked for his papers. They said they were fake and they arrested him. We do not live in a police state," civil rights lawyer Jamie Hernan said in an interview quoted in the report.
The report's release coincides with the departure this week of 18 deputies from another metro Atlanta county for about a month of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement training in Charleston, S.C. The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department in July became the fifth law enforcement agency in Georgia to be approved for participation in the program. In addition to Cobb and Gwinnett counties, Hall and Whitfield counties and the Georgia Department of Public Safety also participate.
Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office - the investigative arm of Congress - 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.
The U.S. Homeland Security Department, which oversees ICE, said changes have been made to incorporate the GAO's suggestions in the program.
The ACLU report released Monday echoes complaints by many immigrant rights advocates nationwide that the changes don't go far enough to prevent racial profiling.
Cobb County resident and anti-illegal immigration activist D.A. King is the founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which seeks stricter laws against illegal immigration and is named for a Georgia teen killed in a traffic accident caused by an illegal immigrant.
King bristles at the notion raised by opponents of the program that people are deported for relatively minor offenses like having a busted tail light or driving without a license. They are deported, he said, because their illegal status is revealed when they are arrested for these or more serious offenses.
"287(g) was never intended to only go after a certain group of criminals," he said.
The law essentially allows local officers to perform the same functions as immigration officers. However, it also says local agents are beholden to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who has said the program should be used "to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens."
Hernan, the civil rights lawyer, said in a phone interview that he doesn't disagree with the program's premise but thinks it's used incorrectly.
"I believe that the original intention of the 287(g) program was to identify serious criminals who were already in detention and allow the federal government to deport them," he said. "That's a sound policy. But if you look at the history of the program and how it's being used, it's clear that it is profoundly flawed."