Local costs of immigration enforcement largely untracked

ATLANTA — Most Georgia counties do not keep track of how much local taxpayer money goes toward their part in carrying out enhanced immigration enforcement, but the costs are likely substantial, according to a new report.

The report from the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute looks at two types of voluntary participation on the local level: immigration detainer requests and a program that deputizes local law enforcement to carry out some tasks.

Statewide, the cost of housing people in a local jail until an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent arrives has likely tallied $88 million during the past decade, according to the group’s analysis. That’s about $9 million a year.

For the six counties in Georgia participating in a controversial program known as the 287(g) program, the cost is likely even greater. For Gwinnett County, which was the only county that reported budget details, the cost was at least $1.2 million annually.

Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood, whose department has participated in that program for about a decade, confirmed Tuesday that his office does not specifically track the costs.

Even so, Chitwood said he believes the expense is worth the benefit of having a tool that helps remove a “criminal element from the community.”

Chitwood also emphasized that the county has conducted searches on people with at least 47 different nationalities, hailing from places as far-flung as China and Germany in addition to Mexico and Central American countries. More than one-third of the county’s residents identify as Latino.

Chitwood likened participating in the program to running a suspect’s name through crime databases, such as the National Crime Information Center.

“All the 287(g) program is is an additional database of those individuals of foreign-born descent,” Chitwood said. “We check to see if they’re wanted by ICE. That’s all it is. It’s very simple.

“It only affects those individuals who are already in jail,” he added. “So I can’t stop you out at the red light or stop sign or for a speeding ticket and check you on the 287(g). I can’t do that. You have to already be in jail.”

But nationally, the program has been a source of controversy. Earlier, local law enforcement could run inquiries on people during traffic stops; now, the program is limited to the jailhouse. But advocates say that still leaves unauthorized immigrants vulnerable when facing lesser charges, such as driving without a license.

That’s why Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor, said at a recent town hall in Whitfield County that the 287(g) program “terrorizes families” and ultimately compromises public safety.

“The problem is if you see a crime, you won’t report if you think reporting a crime means that you are putting your family at risk,” Abrams said last week at the Dalton Convention Center. “And that means criminals go unpunished and uncaught because we’ve pushed the right people into the shadows.”

Abrams’ comments prompted criticism from Republican candidate Brian Kemp’s campaign, which issued this statement: “The people terrorizing families are the criminals and gang members she’s defending, not the brave law enforcement officers she’s tearing down.”

The program has seen a resurgence under President Donald Trump, who has urged greater participation. Nearly two-thirds of the agencies currently in the program have joined since Trump’s inauguration.

Whitfield County was among the four initial Georgia participants in the late 2000s, but two other counties — Bartow and Floyd — and the state Department of Corrections have recently joined.

Other communities in Georgia, meanwhile, have moved to limit their cooperation with ICE. Clarke County in Athens announced in April that it would no longer honor detainer requests that did not come with a court order, citing the risk of civil litigation. Other cities and counties in the Atlanta area had already taken a similar tack.

But the report found that those local officials opting to participate in the more aggressive enforcement often do so without an awareness of the cost.

That makes it difficult to weigh the expense against the often-cited claims that the program boosts public safety, said Wesley Tharpe, GBPI’s research director and the report’s author.

Most of the cost to local government is also not reimbursed, the report found. Tharpe said these “hyper” aggressive immigration enforcement tactics also carry a long-term cost because of the impact on children and families, as well as the economy.

“We are open to the arguments on any issue that the benefits may exceed the cost but it’s hard to argue or prove that if the costs are not being closely tracked,” Tharpe said.

“Part of the goal of this report was really to try to lift up some informed estimates of what these types of policies may cost, based on available information, to inform that local debate for people to be able to look at both sides of the ledger,” he added.

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.

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