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What new deportation policies mean inside Halls jail
Sheriff's Office adapts to ramped-up federal guidelines
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As federal guidelines on deporting illegal immigrants broaden, local authorities are seeing changes in how immigrants are detained.

In 2015, the Obama administration instituted the Priority Enforcement Program, which focused on deporting illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes. President Donald Trump issued an executive order Jan. 25 to change deportation priorities, reverting to the Secure Communities policy that had been in force until 2015 and didn’t parse out types of crimes when considering immigrants for deportation.

“Interior enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws is critically important to the national security and public safety of the United States,” the president’s executive order reads. “Many aliens who illegally enter the United States and those who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas present a significant threat to national security and public safety. This is particularly so for aliens who engage in criminal conduct in the United States.”

In 2007, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office partnered with federal authorities in a program called 287(g) to identify illegal immigrants who can be deported.

When an individual is brought into the jail, officers ask where the person is from, their legal status and their address.

Answers to the questions can then trigger an interview with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

In recent weeks, Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said some paperwork and procedures have been simplified. The legality of some detentions was previously somewhat unclear, giving some of those participating in the 287(g) program “heartburn,” Couch said.

Immigration officials will now issue arrest warrants instead of detainer forms.

“A warrant has more legal status, I believe, other than just a detainer,” Couch said. “When a person’s eligible for bond, they’re eligible for bond, but if there’s a warrant in place, that changes the entire scope of it. Just a detainer — it made a lot of sheriffs very nervous, because you get in that gray area where are you supposed to be holding this person or not?”

Previously, when an undocumented detainee could make bond or was to be released, ICE would be notified ahead of the release date and determine if it needed to act on removing the person from the country.

With the most recent changes, immigrants can be detained past their scheduled release date, according to “Secure Communities.” They can also now be detained even if they have no records in ICE’s database. The Obama administration had stopped detaining immigrants in these cases unless the detainment order indicated the person was a deportation priority.

“I continue to believe that it harms our local economy and our local families, but the climate these days is more toward aggressive enforcement of immigration laws,” attorney Arturo Corso said.

Since the most recent changes, Couch said he has not seen any differences in length of stay or number of immigrants detained.

According to ICE Southern Region spokesman Bryan Cox, Hall County jail officials processed 681 foreign-born people in fiscal year 2016, and 45 were deported. An average of about 900 people total are detained in the Hall County jail in a given month.

Couch said he has been concerned with a “cloud of fear” and misinformation that has plagued the immigration issue in recent months.

“I know in times of misinformation, it allows the criminal element to prey on victims who may not report that they’re a victim of a crime to law enforcement because of that fear,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office does not perform field enforcement, and those reporting crimes are not asked about legal status, Couch said.

Amid national reports of raids and sweeps, 11 people were arrested in early February.

“From those individuals, all of the ones that I saw on their list had been convicted of very serious felonies and some multiple offenders,” Couch said.

The examples included felony drug conviction, theft by taking, aggravated assault and sexual battery, he said.

Corso said he was retained on the criminal case for a single mother accused of working under a false name. After the real person filed a complaint, the woman was arrested and has been ordered deported.

“If people of Hall County understood what was really going on here, I don’t think we would be in favor of deporting a single mother of an American citizen simply for working under a fake name,” Corso said. “If she could work under her real name, she would.”

At a meeting in January among Georgia sheriffs, Couch said ICE officials said changes in immigration procedures are expected.

“I believe that it has been successful in identifying the criminal element that would prey upon everybody that lives here and calls Hall County home,” Couch said.

In 2015, Corso filed a civil suit against Couch and Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard regarding the 287(g) program, claiming those under an immigration hold were removed from the jurisdiction where they still have a pending criminal case.

A judge dismissed the case last year, saying the clients lacked the standing to bring the case. The two named plaintiffs in the case had already been released from Hall County’s custody, so the judge ruled the case was moot.