Fearing exposure to the legal process, undocumented immigrants in the area continue to underreport crimes, local advocates say.
That fear is a reality that immigrants, especially in the Hispanic community, must confront.
“It definitely has been a problem over the years,” Gainesville Attorney Arturo Corso said. “I’ve had people call me, and say ‘I need to hire a lawyer,’ and then we realize they’ve been a victim of a crime, but don’t want to go to the police. They say, ‘We don’t want to call the police, we want you to help us.’”
Federal immigration reform has languished behind the pace of 12 million undocumented immigrants. Many states and localities elected to tackle the issue by participating in existing federal programs, like 287(g), or by putting their own laws on the books.
Named after the federal law that authorizes it, 287(g) gives police the power to question people about their legal status, serve arrest warrants and detain and transport criminals for immigration violations.
The Obama administration confirmed in January it had extended agreements allowing officials in four Georgia counties, including Hall, to continue participating in the program until June 30.
Jose Roque is the pastor of Ministerios Aposento Alto in Gainesville and a chaplain for the Hall County Jail.
When 287(g) started, Roque said, he saw the need for a Spanish-speaking leader in faith to talk to detainees at the jail.
“It has really affected the community, the 287(g) program,” Roque said.
On a statewide level, House Bill 87 passed in 2011 implemented strict immigration measures.
Corso said such harsh policies have alienated Hispanics.
“There is definitely an awareness in the immigrant community that they are not welcome in Georgia,” he said.
Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks emphasized that fear of 287(g) repercussions should never deter victims of crime, and that such people are not subject to immigration checks.
“A responding deputy would have absolutely no interest in checking someone’s status if they are a victim of crime and trying to report a crime,” he said.
The Gainesville Police Department, which does not participate in the 287(g) program, practices the same policy.
“We’re primarily concerned with the safety and well-being of the community, not necessarily so much on an individual’s immigration status,” spokesman Cpl. Kevin Holbrook said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the community regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.”
“And we have worked diligently to have close ties to the Hispanic community.”
Corso said he has heard feedback from officers that indicate growing compassion in helping victims.
“In reality, officers are trained to go out and deal with the crisis. For the last few years, we’ve been hearing police say, ‘Just call us and we’re not going to ask you about your status,’” he said.
But the problem also goes beyond the victims, Corso said. Sometimes witnesses are afraid to come to court.
“A lot of times, when I’m representing someone who is innocent, we find the witnesses who will prove that my client is innocent. But then they’re afraid to testify,” Corso said.
Roque said he’s hopeful for the community’s future interaction with law enforcement.
“The sheriff (Gerald Couch), he has new ideas for the Hispanic community,” he said, with a tone of optimism in his voice.
Corso agreed that if observations hold true, there will be positive changes for the Hispanic community.