The Clarke County Sheriff's Office will no longer detain undocumented immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport unless requests are accompanied by a judicial warrant, the sheriff's department announced late this afternoon.
Sheriff Ira Edwards instituted a new policy in July, complying with ICE requests to hold undocumented inmates—many of whom had not been convicted of a crime—for up to 48 hours beyond when they would have otherwise been released so that ICE could pick them up and deport them. The policy change met with widespread criticism from activists, churches and other elected officials once it became public in December.
In January, Edwards convened an advisory committee that could not come to a consensus on the issue and recommended that he seek legal counsel from the Athens-Clarke County attorney's office, which told him "there is case law that has identified gaps in the current system that do not allow the Sheriff's Office to hold individuals solely on a detainer from ICE," according to a news release. "As such, the Sheriff wishes to avoid the potential risk to the county of civil litigation relating to ICE detainers."
ICE detainers are generally a type of administrative warrant, issued by the agency rather than a judge, and do not carry the same force. Edwards said he would continue to honor detainers that are accompanied by a judicial warrant or court order.
Edwards said he would also continue to query the Department of Homeland Security regarding any foreign national booked into the jail who cannot provide "documentation of lawful status," as required by state law. That will prevent Athens from being declared a "sanctuary city" by the state or federal government, according to the news release.
"The Sheriff intends to communicate and report immigration status as previously practiced, but will not honor ICE requests to detain persons after criminal charges or other holds are resolved unless such requests are accompanied by a judicial warrant or court order," according to the statement.
Three inmates are currently being held on criminal charges along with ICE detainers, but the detainers are being dropped, according to the sheriff's department. No inmates are being held in jail on ICE detainers alone.
According to the immigrants' rights group Dignidad Immigrante Athens, the sheriff's office has been holding an average of two inmates per week for deportation.
"This means two families every week... suffered the hurt of the separation of a loved one; a father, a mother, an uncle, a friend or a worker that were ripped apart from our community," organizer Beto Cacao said in a statement. "This does not mean that people will not be be deported from Athens. It also doesn’t mean that immigrant workers will live in peace. To achieve that dream we have a long way to go—we need your hands, your voice, your supportand that of each and every immigrant in this country."
Mayoral candidate Harry Sims also released a statement applauding the policy reversal—but also drawing a distinction with the tactics used by Athens for Everyone and other groups. Sims has publicly defended the sheriff while also expressing support for immigrants in general.
I commend Sheriff Edwards on persevering through this process of seeking to act in accordance within the law as his office understands it despite attacks from particular individuals, organizations and elected officials. From the outset, the Sherriff expressed to me his desire to practice as much mercy as the law allows and he and others have worked tirelessly to determine the boundaries within which they must act.
I can take no credit for the sheriff’s change of heart save one; I approached him as a friend and colleague. Instead of angry shouts, I brought kind words. Instead of placards, I brought legal opinions. Instead of condemning him, I believed in his desire to do right by our people.
The Sheriff, task team and many from the LatinX community worked tirelessly, sometimes disagreeing to come to where we are now. I support this decision wholeheartedly and stand with the community on this day worthy of celebration.