Now these organizers are tackling the January runoff election for the US Senate.
Jonathan Zuñiga grew up in Gwinnett County, Georgia, northeast Atlanta and remembers his parents’ fear of going to the grocery store.
In 2009, the Gwinnett County’s office of Sheriff Butch Conway began turning over hundreds of Latinx immigrants in its care to ICE – including many who only ended up in jail after police arrested them for minor traffic violations. Zuñiga says his parents, who are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, had to quit their construction jobs for low-paying factory jobs that required less driving. However, errands remained a threat.
“Driving even a small time was unsafe,” said Zuñiga.
The county sheriff’s office made these transfers because it had joined ICE’s 287 (g) program, which enables local officials to directly enforce federal immigration policies, including checking immigration status and detaining residents, to ICE takes custody. Gwinnett County runs one of the largest 287 (g) programs in the country: this year it ranks fourth nationwide for the number of ICE detention requests where local prisons keep people in custody longer for federal purposes pass agents. The Gwinnett detainees peaked in 2012 and declined steadily during Barack Obama’s second term as president. But they rose again after Donald Trump took office in early 2017 with new enforcement priorities, including ICE’s more frequent arrests of non-citizens for minor crimes. An investigation by Mother Jones found that between 2017 and July 2019, nearly half of those detained in Gwinnett County Jail for ICE were charged with driving licenses or some other minor traffic violation.
But in November, voters in Gwinnett and the nearby suburb of Cobb County voted for Democratic sheriffs for the first time in decades, and elected candidates who made election promises to end the 287 (g) programs. A Democratic candidate against 287 (g) also won in Charleston County, South Carolina; Overall, these victories reflect a number of progressive sheriff victories in 2018 that were driven by immigration issues.
Longtime Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren lost to challenger Craig Owens. In Gwinnett County, sheriff-elect Keybo Taylor won 57 percent of the vote against Republican candidate Lou Solis, Conway’s deputy who was not seeking re-election. In contrast, Conway ran unopposed in 2016 and won 97 percent of the vote.
This surprise, and the emphasis on 287 (g) as a key campaign issue in both counties, resulted in large part from the work of local immigration rights organizers who expanded their activities and activated color communities under the Trump presidency. Your organization also helped Georgia elect a democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992.
Prior to the November elections, Zuñiga joined the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights Action Network (GLAHR) as a recruiter, which focused on the sheriff races in Counties Gwinnett and Cobb. Mijente, Zuñiga and other recruiters were able to knock on doors to more than 125,000 residences – mostly Latinx and Black voters – as part of the “Take Action, Gain Power” coalition with Southerners on New Ground (SONG) Power (with COVID-19 precautions ) according to GLAHR. Their work ran parallel to groups such as the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the reach of which helped nearly double voter turnout among Asian American and Pacific islanders.
Zuñiga noted that many residents knew 287 (g) but didn’t know how to change it. “They didn’t know the official name of this policy, but they knew what could happen if [you didn’t have] a license, ”he said. “A lot of people thought it was something that came from the federal level. They were unaware that a change of sheriff could actually change that policy. “
GLAHR was founded nearly 15 years ago and is the largest grassroots Latinx organization in the state. Under the Trump administration, GLAHR, SONG, and other Georgia-based nonprofits joined a nationwide trend to change liberal activism by creating 501 (c) (4) weapons – organizations that are also federal income tax exempt but can lobby and do political work – to be more aggressive political actors instead of focusing solely on litigation, education, or service delivery.
Kevin Joachin, organizer of the GLAHR Action Network, says the organization’s priority is to “raise the political awareness of our community” in order to inform Latinx residents of specific policies and their ability to change them to the extent that that has little priority for a voting race, especially in Georgia. This organization started early in the electoral cycle; GLAHR’s lead organizer Carlos Medina said activating Latinx voters for the sheriff primaries helped push Democratic candidates to the left in both countries, leading to promises to approve the 287 (g) program break up.
Zuñiga said he found many Latinx and Black voters in the suburbs – especially in the more rural areas of Cobb and Gwinnett Counties – despite the influx of political spending and organization that has accompanied Georgia’s recent demographic change, never had an interaction with an advertiser in years. “We’re trying to have this little, little conversation with people because we think it’s really important,” said Zuñiga.
Although Hillary Clinton won Gwinnett County in the 2016 presidential election and Joe Biden won both the county and the state that year, polls show that more than a third of Georgia Latinxes voted for Trump. Take Action Get Power recruiters found that some Latinx voters in Gwinnett supported Solis for the sheriff in part because of his Latinx identity. According to Joachin, the GLAHR Action Network’s personal approach was vital: advertisers saw pro-solis signs in some stores and spoke to owners or employees about Gwinnett’s high deportation rates. The next time advertisers drove by, the signs were gone, said Joachin. Compared to hyperpolarized debates on presidential candidates, Zuñiga said he could “have more contact conversations [about the sheriff’s race] because it was something that affected their communities and they could see it firsthand. “
According to Tayleece Paul, SONG volunteer coordinator, knocking on the door resulted in contacts or conversations with 32 percent of the homes, compared with just 2 percent for telephone banking. Paul grew up in Gwinnett County and remembers the father of a friend who was deported through the 287 (g) program. Many of the coalition’s recruiters have met people who have had similar experiences with the program, she says. “Everyone had their own story.”
According to Joachin, engaging the entire Latinx community – including those who have no choice, like undocumented immigrants – is central to the GLAHR Action Network’s empowerment strategy. “We’re not always concerned when the person we’re looking for is at home because their undocumented family member may benefit from the conversation by being involved,” he said. “We don’t tell them to vote – that’s electoral fraud – but we create a culture of voting.”
Along with teenage and college-aged Latinx folks who have been politically active on issues that affect their parents or families, undocumented community members in Gwinnett and Cobb have influenced and are the voices of others in their families or neighborhoods joined movement as organizers. Gwinnett has an estimated 69,000 undocumented immigrants, and Cobb has just over half of them, according to Institute Migration Policy estimates based on federal census data. “What definitely needs to be considered is the powerhouse that mobilizes the undocumented community,” Joachin said.
For the GLAHR Action Network, the focus is now on making sure the new sheriffs keep their promises to end the collaborative arrangements with ICE and watching the legislature next year to see what kind of setback from the Republicans controlled state legislature could step in.
There’s more the sheriffs could do to stop working with ICE. Even without a 287 (g) in the books, ICE can work with local sheriffs to request detainees, request access to prisons, and rent cells. Both Owens and Taylor have stated that they will not be partnering with ICE in this way, although Taylor also told the September appeal that his office would partner with ICE in his election in “serious crimes” cases. Medina says GLAHR will work to hold both sheriffs’ offices accountable. “We are also much more powerful now. I think nobody can deny that, ”said Joachin. “We will continue to build electricity at the local level as we know ICE will continue to operate in these areas regardless of whether the county departments work with them [them]. ”
Now GLAHR is campaigning for the two US Senate runoff elections to be held in Georgia next month. Joachin says it is important to ensure that the Biden administration’s immigration plans “don’t just involve negotiations with Republicans.”
“We need to listen to our demands in full, including a moratorium on deportations and family segregation, reuniting families and keeping them out of custody, thereby abolishing ICE,” he said. “We know from these conversations with people at the doors that people are tired of compromising and just giving crumbs to the community. … We cannot negotiate our parents and we cannot negotiate our lives. “
Paul emphasizes the need to further raise awareness of certain policies that sheriffs can change or influence. Beyond 287 (g), using bail on remand and criminalizing petty charges are on their list. “It’s not just about electing a new sheriff so 287 (g) can go away, there will still be a lot of atrocities going on as long as these guidelines stay in place,” she said.
Zuñiga believes the recent demonstration of Latinx’s organizational power will stay here. “It depends on the people here actually having the experience of knowing what it’s like to be run over and how immigration actually works here in the state,” he said. “You don’t just vote for what’s best for you and your family. You also vote on what is best for your community. “