Photo Credit: Blake Aued
It’s certainly not unusual for several hundred people to be gathered downtown on a Friday night. It’s also not unusual to a protest on the City Hall steps—it’s the No. 2 location for sign-wavers after the Arch. But when hundreds of people spend upwards of two hours standing outside City Hall in 40 degree weather on a weekend to rally for immigrants’ rights, that doesn’t happen every day.
It’s also unusual for state legislators to inject themselves into a local political issue, but that’s what Reps. Deborah Gonzalez (D-Athens) and Jonathan Wallace (D-Watkinsville) did when they issued a statement Friday condemning the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office for its policy of honoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to detain undocumented inmates for deportation. They called the policy legally questionable and said there was no compelling reason for the sheriff’s office to change it in July.
For Sheriff Ira Edwards to cooperate with ICE is unusual, too, at least in Athens. The local police department—run by the Athens-Clarke County government, as opposed to the sheriff, who’s independently elected—does not work with ICE and does not question people on their immigration status. The Clarke County School District, as well, has passed a resolution saying that it will do what it can to protect undocumented students and their families and be a welcoming place for all. Edwards is alone on an island on this issue, politically speaking.
Keep in mind that these are not necessarily hardened criminals. Georgia forbids people without proper documentation to obtain driver’s licenses, and so simply getting pulled over is often enough to land them in jail. ICE used to only place holds on inmates with criminal records, but under the Trump Administration, that has changed. Now the agency can place a hold on anyone, and it doesn’t even have to give a reason.
“We are not only concerned that routine traffic stops are leading to the detention and deportation of people in our community, but that Athens-area children are terrorized by immigration raids that occur while they wait for the school bus, as some reports now indicate,” Wallace and Gonzalez said in the statement, which is available in full on flagpole.com. “These events sow the seeds of distrust between people and the police, making us less safe as a community.”
Capt. Hayden Hodges, the spokesman for the sheriff’s office, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
At the rally, local residents like Aldo Mendoza spoke about how the sheriff’s office policy has put them in fear. Mendoza, who said he has lived here for 17 years, goes to college in Gainesville and works in Jefferson, so he’s often away from home, leaving his father, who’s ill with kidney disease, to fend for himself. Mendoza said he worries that his father—who is not eligible for Medicaid because he’s undocumented—will be pulled over and deported while going to pick up his medicine, and that he won’t receive proper care in a detention center.
“He sacrificed everything to bring me here” looking for a better life, Mendoza said. “I’m trying to sacrifice everything to keep him alive.”
Local churches have also added their voices in opposition to the sheriff’s policy. The newly formed Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition—made up of Methodist, Presbyterian, Jewish, Quaker, Baptist, Muslim, Episcopal, Catholic and Unitarian Universalist faith groups—is “dedicated to offering hospitality, safety and opportunities for all immigrants, regardless of status, to participate fully in our shared community,” according to its mission statement.
"I was always taught that loving my neighbor included welcoming refugees and immigrants and standing with those who are oppressed," Joel Siebentritt, the coalition's chairman and a member of Oconee Street Methodist Church, said in a news release. "There are innocent, long-standing members of this community who live in fear of immediate deportation without due process.”
Last week, Flagpole profiled Richard Dien Winfield, the latest entrant into the race against U.S. Rep. Jody Hice. He’s running on the Democratic side, along with Chalis Montgomery, but Hice is also likely to face a couple of challengers in the Republican primary this May.
Joe Hunt, a Watkinsville resident and vice president of franchise relations for local chicken-finger chain Zaxby’s, is running as a bipartisan dealmaker type. “I will use my experience at building and nurturing relationships to promote and fight for solutions that benefit the greater good,” he says on his website (huntforcongress.com). “I want to be the voice that introduces new, sensible ideas that move the country forward and promote fiscal responsibility and social accountability.”
Also running on the GOP side is Bradley Griffin, an Iraq-era Army veteran and business owner who appears to be more of a Trump-style candidate. He calls illegal immigration “out of control,” opposes any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and wants to “repeal and replace” Obamacare and “reduce the escalating violent crime that has been sweeping across our beloved nation.” (Crime is not actually rising, no matter what the president would have you believe.) These sound a lot like Hice’s far-right positions, and 10th District voters have never shown any inclination to elect a moderate, so I wouldn’t give either of these guys much of a chance, but what do I know? Look for more about them in a future issue.
Meanwhile, psychologist and mother of four Clarke County School District students LaKeisha Gantt is running for the District 7 school board seat currently held by Carol Williams, saying that she “provides the opportunity for a fresh outlook and an informed voice in problem-solving to ensure healthy learning environments in which all of our public school children can experience success.” Gantt will host a kickoff event Sunday, Jan. 28 from 3–5 p.m. at Memorial Park, or learn more at electlakeishagantt.com.
ACC Commission Roundup
The Athens-Clarke County Commission might set a record for fastest voting meeting Feb. 6 after breezing through its Jan. 16 agenda-setting meeting in half an hour and putting almost everything on consent (where noncontroversial items pass with no discussion and one vote).
Scheduled for a vote are updated plans for Southeast Clarke Park and Boulevard Woods. The Southeast Clarke Park master plan calls for a 400-meter track, additional pickleball courts, moving the basketball courts, better connectivity with the tennis center on the south side of the property and a community center/library. Boulevard Woods, the volunteer-driven pocket park where Boulevard dead-ends into Barber Street, will enter its second phase of construction thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Riverview Foundation. In addition, the commission is set to approve a sidewalk along the north side of Prince Avenue between Pound Street and the Loop—after also voting to fill in sidewalk gaps on Lexington Road, West Broad Street and South Milledge Avenue last month—and to preserve the Lehmann-Bancroft House at 392 S. Pope St. by designating it a local historic landmark.