Five months ago, the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office quietly changed its policy regarding cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and began holding inmates up to 48 hours after they would have been released so ICE agents could pick them up and deport them. At a time when the Trump Administration is ramping up immigration enforcement and even attempting to withhold funds from “sanctuary cities,” the news sent a shockwave through Athens’ sizeable immigrant community and their allies.
After the progressive political group Athens for Everyone brought the issue to light, the sheriff’s department issued a statement on the policy change:
The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office policy on Immigration detainers was changed during July of 2017. The Department of Homeland Security revised their policy on issuing detainers to be more attentive to probable cause issues. In light of these changes, and in keeping with our role and responsibility for community safety with respect to the detention of individuals with outstanding warrants, we now recognize ICE detainers that are supported by a Warrant for Arrest or Warrant for Removal/Deportation. These holds are recognized for a strict 48-hour time period. We are not seeking to arrest immigrants based on their lawful status in this country, nor are we participating in any immigration roundups with federal officials. The Sheriff is sworn to uphold the laws of this state and is obligated to ensure the public safety of this community. The Sheriff’s Office only detains undocumented immigrants who have been arrested on other criminal charges and are wanted by immigration officials. This underscores the need for all citizens to act responsibly and commit to obeying the laws of our state and country. We are in discussion with local elected officials and citizens as we consider what is best for the community at large.
So far, 17 inmates have been held at ICE’s request, and 13 of them were deported, according to Capt. Hayden Hodges.
According to several news outlets and immigrants’ rights groups, in March ICE expanded the circumstances under which it would ask local law enforcement agencies to detain undocumented immigrants. Previously, ICE only requested detainers for those with a felony conviction, three misdemeanor convictions or who had already been deported and illegally returned to the U.S. Now, ICE can request detainers for any reason. The largely conservative Georgia Sheriffs’ Association also changed its guidelines on ICE holds to more strongly encourage sheriffs to abide by them.
The sheriff’s department’s shift in policy puts it somewhat at odds with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, which does not cooperate with ICE. Because the sheriff is an elected constitutional officer, Chief Scott Freeman said there is nothing he can do, but he told Flagpole he continues to believe that enforcing federal immigration law at the local level is unconstitutional.
“My only comment would be, regardless of what the sheriff does… the police department’s policy on cooperation or lack thereof is not going to change,” Freeman said.
Asked whether officers could exercise discretion in arresting suspects who might be held for deportation, Freeman said they don’t investigate anyone’s immigration status. “We have no way of knowing whether that person has a detainer on them,” he said.
Freeman said he only learned of the change in policy when a representative of the Athens Immigrants Rights Coalition informed him a couple of weeks ago. He said he has requested a meeting with Sheriff Ira Edwards but has not received a response.
But members of A4E and other immigrants’ rights groups did meet with Edwards and top brass last week, and they accused him of parroting Trump Administration rhetoric about immigrants possibly being violent criminals or terrorists, although the crime rate among undocumented immigrants is actually lower than the general population, most likely because they don’t want to call attention to themselves.
“I want to express how distressing it is to live in a town where immigrants are [classified] as criminals or terrorists,” said Betina Kaplan of U-Lead Athens, a group that helps undocumented high-school students attend college. She was one of several activists who attended a Mayor and Commission meeting last week to urge them to put pressure on Edwards to change his policy regarding ICE.
“Even forgetting to pay a traffic ticket could mean a life destroyed and a family torn apart,” A4E board member Eleanor Davis said.
Tim Denson—the group’s founder and former president—noted that ICE “warrants” aren’t signed by a judge, unlike criminal warrants, and like many immigrants’ rights groups and legal scholars, argued that detaining anyone past the time when they should be released is a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. “It’s a request,” he said, “and I think it’s a request that we should deny.”
Melissa Link was the only commissioner to respond publicly. “It’s deeply disturbing to me that we have a sheriff that’s buying into this rhetoric,” she said.
In case you were wondering, Edwards, a Democrat, ran unopposed in last year and is up for re-election to a sixth term in 2020.
Here’s what else the commission did at its Dec. 5 voting meeting:
• Agreed to let the Southern Off-Road Biking Association (SORBA) build a “pump track”—a loop of berms and mounds that can be ridden without pedaling—at Trail Creek Park.
• Declared a damaged 1930s dam and small reservoir near Commerce Road and the Loop to be surplus, and will entertain offers to buy it. Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson moved that any money from the sale go to ACC’s affordable housing trust fund.
• Bought a vacant school off Barber Street from the Clarke County School District for $400,000. There are no current plans for the property, but it could be used to expand the nearby water treatment plant or flipped to a developer.
• Tweaked a demolition moratorium on Milledge Circle and Castalia Avenue to make it easier to add on to a house, as long as the addition doesn’t change the facade or roofline.
• Approved budgets and timelines for transportation projects voters agreed in November to fund with a new 1 percent sales tax (T-SPLOST).
• Approved plans to replace an overloaded and leaking sewer line near the county’s College Station Road sewer plant with a larger pipe, over the strenuous objections of Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, who favored a different route.
• Approved plans for a QuikTrip on Oconee Street at the Loop, a Mexican restaurant called El Barrio in Five Points and renovating the former Oconee Street School/ACTION Inc. building into apartments.