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Break the law. Get sent home.
New program aimed at illegal immigrants who break law
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Listen as Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic discusses 287(g), a local-federal immigration enforcement partnership.
Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic says it's simply about enforcing the law. Latino advocates call it a misguided step that could lead to a exodus of workers and damage an already tenuous relationship between Hispanics and authorities.

However one views the provisions of the local-federal immigration enforcement partnership known as 287(g), it seems certain to have a noticeable impact in Gainesville and Hall County.

Starting next week, members of Hall County's sizable population of illegal immigrants will face the very real prospect of deportation if arrested on any charge that lands them in the Hall County jail.

That's because Cronic's office has reached an agreement with federal immigration officials that will allow certain deputies to identify and begin deportation proceedings for anyone in the country illegally. Seven jail officers and two drug and gang task force agents will be authorized to start the process.

Officials with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement will have 72 hours to pick up offenders, at which point due process in the federal system will ultimately determine whether they will be deported.

"This is not about immigration, or even illegal immigration," Cronic said. "It's aimed at illegal immigrants who continue to break the law while they're here, and that is the sole focus of this program."

Jerry Gonzalez, director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, has been a vocal critic of 287(g) in Cobb County, where Sheriff Neil Warren instituted the program in July. Since that time, 1,357 inmates have had deportation proceedings started against them, and ICE has taken custody of 748 illegal immigrants.

This year, Hall, Whitfield and Oconee counties are instituting the program. Deputies from each agency graduate from their five weeks of training on Monday.

Gonzalez said the enforcement program has led to an exodus of workers in Cobb, citing a drastic drop in school enrollment rates for Latinos and apartment occupancy rates that dipped from 90 percent to 75 percent in two weeks.

"Hall County needs to be careful how they implement it, particularly given that the poultry industry hires many Latino workers," Gonzalez said. "It could have a devastating impact on the poultry industry, and if the poultry industry in Gainesville suffers, all business is going to suffer."

D.A. King, a Marietta activist and outspoken critic of illegal immigration, agrees that people are moving out of Cobb as a result of 287(g).

"It has become less hospitable to illegal aliens," King said. "What 287(g) is doing is proving the obvious and logical. Enforcement works. It's difficult to argue against using every available resource to enforce existing law. This creates an atmosphere where people have more respect for the law, because they know it will be enforced."

Gainesville attorney Arturo Corso said he's in agreement with targeting certain segments of society with deportation.

"Let's go after the gang members, the drug dealers, the violent offenders who are undocumented immigrants, and let's deport them," Corso said. "But let's not incarcerate otherwise law-abiding people for things like playing their radios too loud or driving without a license. These are our neighbors and people who contribute to our local economy."

Cronic said he doesn't believe the program will have a major impact on Hall County's economy.

"I've lived here all my life, and seen different people in those jobs, and I think moving forward, there will be people who will step in to take those jobs," Cronic said. "The bottom line is we're a nation of laws, and in absence of the federal government doing what it's supposed to be doing, and seeing so many illegal immigrants involved in quality of life issues like gangs and illegal drugs, we're in a position where we need to take these steps."

But it won't be just drugs and gangs that 287(g) targets.

Anyone who is booked into the Hall County jail, whether for shoplifting, driving without a license or any other jailable offense, is subject to an immigration status check and possible deportation.

Cronic said the jail in recent months has averaged about 200 foreign national inmates booked in each month, with about half in the country illegally.

Dave Anderson, editor of Gainesville's Mexico Lindo Spanish-language newspaper, says local jail numbers he's tracked show that the criminality of illegal immigrants is "much lower than people realize." Anderson said only about 20 percent of Hall County's jail population at any given time is Hispanic, and if half are in the country illegally, "then you're down to 10 percent of your jail population" who are illegal immigrants.

Anderson and others take the view that 287(g) could serve to pay for the upkeep of the new $54 million Hall County jail, since the federal government is obligated to pay for any immigration detainees held there beyond the allotted 72 hours. Cronic refutes that, saying he expects most detainees to be picked up promptly.

"We don't anticipate long-term housing of ICE inmates," Cronic said, adding that a separate federal contract to house prisoners for the U.S. Marshal's service will bring in revenues for the jail. "We're not looking at (287(g)) as some kind of money-making venture."

Critics charge that 287(g) will chill relations between law enforcement and a potentially fearful Hispanic community, creating a reluctance for crime victims and witnesses to crime to come forward.

"We're already dealing with a population of people who are afraid to call the police," local immigration attorney David Kennedy said. "This is simply going to make the situation worse."

Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper has heard that fear expressed.

"We'll just have to see what comes out of it," Hooper said. "As far as I'm concerned, if you're the victim of a crime or a witness to a crime, if you need help, you shouldn't be afraid to contact a law enforcement official. If you're a crime victim, your immigration status is very much secondary to what happened to you."

Cronic stressed there will be no status checks of victims or witnesses, no racial profiling and no increase in traffic stops for what Gonzalez and others characterize as "driving while Latino."

"We keep track of all traffic-related contacts, and take every step to see that that has not happened and will not happen here," Cronic said.

The sheriff said so far he's heard no real complaints about the program, only praise. The criticism he's seen has been in press reports, Cronic said.

"I have not heard from any of our citizens who thought it was the wrong thing to do," Cronic said. "When you consider that this really only involves illegal immigrants who continue to break the law while here, most people are supportive of it."

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