Bortolo Ruiz was fishing with four other Mexican day laborers at Wahoo Creek April 5 when a state Department of Natural Resources Ranger asked the men for their fishing licenses.
When they could provide neither a fishing license nor valid identification, DNR Cpl. Adam Loudermilk arrested the men and took them to the Hall County jail, where it was soon determined they were in the United States illegally. Under a new local-federal initiative known as 287(g), jailers processed the men to be turned over to immigration officials for deportation proceedings.
Within two weeks of their arrest, after pleading no contest in state court to misdemeanor fishing without a license and receiving a suspended sentence of the four days they already served in jail, Ruiz, 29, and his fellow fishermen were picked up by officials with Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, on a fast track for the immigration courts and, very likely, a trip back to Mexico.
The incident, while unusual, illustrates the inequitable impact 287(g) can and is having on a large segment of Hall County’s Hispanic population, critics of the program say.
Local attorney Arturo Corso said he believes there is a right way to enforce immigration laws, by targeting serious drug-related offenses and violent crimes that cause community concerns, and that too many working immigrants are being caught up in the 287(g) web since it was implemented three weeks ago.
"There’s no way five people fishing in the middle of the day would cause anybody alarm or concern," Corso said.
Corso’s law partner, David Kennedy, said he believes law enforcement officers are selectively targeting Hispanics with the knowledge that the new initiative could see them deported.
"I’ve had several clients who have been asked for their Social Security cards (during traffic stops)," Kennedy said. "I don’t think the sheriff has given an edict to go and harass immigrants. My guess is there are some officers out there who are using this program to harass immigrants."
Sheriff Steve Cronic said his agency already closely monitors the racial and ethnic breakdown of traffic stops, citations and arrests to avoid what he calls "bias-based profiling."
"Every month I receive those numbers, and those statistics closely reflect the makeup of our community," Cronic said. "The mandate our folks have is to do things the same way they’ve always done them. This doesn’t change that."
Attorney Joe Diaz, who represented three of the fishermen, said in 16 years as an attorney he had never seen someone jailed for fishing without a license.
"Certainly no white folks," Diaz said. "It just feeds into the idea that now the Hispanic community is under attack. It doesn’t make any sense."
Georgia DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Barnes said the arrests were "not an uncommon occurrence." A DNR officer has the option of issuing a warning, writing a citation or arresting an offender on a fishing license violation charge, she said.
"What likely happened was the violators were unable to provide a proper identification for the officer," Barnes said.
She said that without identification, a violator may never show up for a summons or pay the ticket.
"If there’s an issue in answering a summons, the officer may require a violator to post bond" by taking him to jail, Barnes said. "I’m assuming that’s what happened in this case."
Diaz, like Corso, thinks officials should use some discretion in how they apply the program, rather than using a blanket approach with all arrestees who are in the country illegally, regardless of what landed them in jail.
"I don’t blame the sheriff for what he’s doing," Diaz said. "I think the theory behind the program, if applied with discretion, is valid. It just doesn’t make sense to apply this to people who are not threats to our community and to not use some discretion."
Cronic said it should not be up to his office to selectively enforce 287(g) and only process illegal aliens for deportation proceedings based on the charges they face. Whether they should be deported should be up to immigration judges, he said.
"We’re not judges and it’s not our place to be judges," Cronic said. "When you do that, it’s a slippery slope you go down. It’s not something that should be determined at our level."
Cronic said his agency is modeling its policies on the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, the first agency in Georgia to implement 287(g), by equally applying the deportation process to all arrestees.
"As law enforcement officers, it’s not our place to decide" who gets deported and who doesn’t, Cronic said. "Due process in the courts will decide that. The way not to get caught up in the program is don’t break the law while you’re here illegally."
Critics say the initiative has already fostered a climate of fear and apprehension of law enforcement in the local Hispanic community.
"It’s tragic that we have an ethnicity of people in this day and age that live in fear of their government," Corso said.
Said Diaz, "Word spreads very quickly among the Hispanic community. I think the level of trust in recent years between law enforcement and the Hispanic community has been much improved. This is just going to set us back decades."
Cronic re-emphasized that officers are not checking the residency status of victims or witnesses, and that ultimately it’s up to ICE and the federal courts, not his office, whether a person charged with a crime will be deported.
"Advocates would do a service to let members of the community know not only what this program is, but what it is not," Cronic said.
The sheriff also refuted charges by critics that 287(g) is a money-making venture that would bring revenue into the jail by charging federal officials a daily boarding fee for immigration detainees not picked up within 72 hours.
"That’s absolutely false," he said. "This program has actually freed up bed space at the jail, because the federal government is picking them up in the time they said they would. We’re not seeing any higher numbers than we did before."
Local attorneys allege there has been an increase recently in so-called "knock-and-talk" searches of homes, in which an officer knocks on a door, asks for a person wanted on a warrant, then asks consent to search the home. During the search, officers have found work IDs and other documents, which they use to make forgery charges, Corso said.
Cronic said he’s not aware of any more knock and talk searches than in the past. He called it a common practice in his agency’s warrant service division.
Diaz said he wishes authorities would use "common sense and compassion in applying the law, rather than blindly following it."
Diaz notes that working immigrants, some with children born in this country who are U.S. citizens, may find themselves separated from their families and deported over criminal charges that are without merit.
"The merits of the case really have nothing to do with it," Diaz said. "Even if it’s totally unsupported, once they touch the jail, a hold will be placed on them, and their life in this community is over."