The face of gang activity in Hall County has changed over time.
A large portion of Hall County’s population is Hispanic and the demographics of the area’s street gangs have followed suit.
“The large percentage of Hall County’s gang members are Hispanic,” said Lt. Scott Ware of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
The important distinction is that almost no gang members are in the country illegally. Most are young U.S. citizens.
“Maybe 10 years ago we saw more illegal aliens in gangs,” said Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland. “They’re actually U.S. citizens, but they’re of Hispanic descent.”
The majority of gang members are young males ranging in age from 12 to 20.
“Usually by the time someone hits their late teens, early 20s, they’re either incarcerated — sometimes dead, that’s not the norm — or they’ve moved on. They have other responsibilities and they’ve finally stepped up and gotten away from the lifestyle. A lot of times they are in prison, though,” Ware said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the estimated 8,944 Hispanic or Latino males younger than 18 in Hall County, almost 80 percent, or 7,105, were born in the U.S.
Of the 1,839 foreign-born, 159 are naturalized U.S. citizens and 1,680 are not citizens.
Latino gangs are common across the U.S. They began cropping up around Hall County during the last decade as the growing population of Latino teenagers felt the need to band together and protect each other.
“It’s the central need to be together, to stick together,” said Bobby Jones, a school resource officer at C.W. Davis Middle School. “It’s an us-against-them type thing.”
Jones said in his career, he has learned that no matter where you are in the country, the same issues exist for street gangs.
“We all have similar, if not like, problems,” Jones said. “When it comes to gangs there’s still that need for a group.”
The controversial 287(g) program, which enables local law enforcement to recommend undocumented residents to federal authorities for deportation, has had an effect on gang activity, though some aren’t sure it is positive.
Hall County has hoped to eliminate crimes committed by illegal immigrants through the 287(g) program. The program has been used to deport illegal immigrants who have committed a range of crimes, from violent felonies to simple misdemeanors like fishing without a license.
Ware said 287(g) has been very effective in combatting drug trafficking.
“Almost all of our drug seizures ... were committed by Hispanics, most of whom were here illegally,” Ware said.
However, drug trafficking is not typical of the young members of Hall County’s street gangs, according to the Sheriff’s office.
Ware said he believes 287(g) is motivation for some gang members to behave. While many are citizens, their parents or other relatives may not be. Keeping authorities as far away from illegal immigrants as possible would seem to be a priority.
“If an individual is here illegally, they don’t want law enforcement attention,” Ware said.
Joe Amerling, vice president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association and a local gang investigator, said it is often the case that gang members can use the threat of deportation to their advantage if a parent tries to discipline the child in a gang.
“The parents are normally illegal, the kids threaten them with calling Immigration (and Customs Enforcement),” Amerling said. “Or if you beat them, they’ll call DFCS and you’ll get deported. There’s really no fear for these young kids.”
Local attorney Arturo Corso said he believes 287(g) may actually do more to promote gang activity than reduce it. If a parent or close family member is deported, it could lead that young person to join a gang in order to fill that void in their life, he said.
“Really, all (287(g)) is is a way to purge the community of immigrants,” Corso said. “We have young people who are involved in gangs that could be better served. I would be willing to bet their father or mother or close relative has been deported or had some other negative law enforcement or immigration experience.”