Traffic stops in Georgia as the first step to deportation

In the northern suburbs of Atlanta, the first batch of arrests were made in February, just days after President Donald Trump defended his crackdown on “illegal criminals” (“Gang members, drug dealers and others will be removed!”) on Twitter at 3 a.m of immigrants began shortly after rush hour that day. City police in the city of Norcross pulled over a Latino man this morning for driving too closely behind the car in front of him. He did not have a valid driver’s license and officials could not confirm whether or not he was in the United States legally. He was immediately arrested and taken to the county jail down the street, where he awaited the arrival of federal immigration agents.

At 10:09 a.m., a second immigrant was booked into the county jail. This time, a Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office officer caught a Mexican man texting while driving. Bail for his offenses was over $850. But release from prison wasn’t an option — Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, had a 48-hour window to transfer him to an immigration detention center in south Georgia, 200 miles from his home.

Four minutes later, a third inmate came in, another immigrant caught driving without a license. Then came a fourth. And later a fifth. And a sixth.

For undocumented immigrants living in the Trump era, their current ZIP code may be a stronger predictor of the risk of deportation they face than the length of their criminal record or the date they first arrived in the United States. Regular traffic stops are beginning to show how extraordinarily broad Trump’s definition of an “illegal criminal” is and how that definition is applied to the undocumented immigrants that local police encounter in their daily work. And in regions with a history of racial tensions and hostility toward immigrants, local leaders now have virtual carte blanche to make any interaction with police the first step toward deportation.

The size of each graph represents the total number of immigration suspensions for each period. Between February and April 2017, there were almost five times as many suspensions as in the same period the previous year.

Graphics: The Intercept

Gwinnett County, one of the most diverse regions in Georgia, has seen an increase in the number of immigrants caught in deportation proceedings for what initially appears to be a minor infraction. Local police there reported nearly 500 people to ICE for possible immigration violations between February and April. Only a fraction of these were related to allegations of serious crimes. Of all the pending charges that accompanied the referrals, 70 percent were the result of traffic violations — most of them for driving without a license, according to county jail data compiled by The Intercept.

The arrests represent a nearly fivefold increase in the number of immigrants being held by ICE at the Gwinnett County Jail compared to the same period last year. Between February and April 2016, local law enforcement referred just over 100 people to federal immigration authorities. Only 36 percent of the accompanying fees were traffic-related.

“People would have been stopped six months ago, but it wouldn’t have resulted in an interaction with ICE,” said Tracie L. Klinke, an immigration attorney in Marietta, Georgia. “What we’ve seen in recent months is a quiet resurgence of traffic stops leading to contacts with ICE.”

In this photo taken on Thursday, September 30, 2011, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Fredy and Anahi Martinez (right), walk with their two children to the supermarket in Norcross, Georgia.  The couple, who have lived in the United States for 12 years, say they would risk deportation if they drove a car without a license because their community enforces the 287(g) program, which allows state and local law enforcement to to question everyone about their immigration status for any violation of the law, such as driving without a license.  (AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser)

A Mexican immigrant couple (right) walks with their two children to the supermarket in Norcross, Georgia, on September 30, 2011.

Photo: AP/Erik S. Lesser

Law enforcement officers in Gwinnett County have a special partnership with the agency. The prison there is one of 40 facilities across the country that participate in the 287(g) program. Local officials have the authority to act as federal agents and issue a hold on potentially deportable immigrants, also known as detainees, on behalf of ICE. According to data analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, more than 14,000 people detained at the prison have been referred to federal immigration authorities since 2009, nearly double the number at the second-largest facility in Georgia.

However, after peaking in 2012, Gwinnett County’s incarceration rates declined amid nationwide outcry and resistance to 287(g) and the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce the pool of immigrants targeted for deportation, with a particular focus on the youngest cases, there has been a steady decline in cross-border commuters or people with previous convictions for a crime. Now plans are underway under Trump to expand and revitalize the program. Local advocates have long warned against encouraging police to use traffic violations as an excuse to racially profile drivers they suspect are undocumented. The violations were at times so minor, from a tiny crack in the windshield to failing to turn on headlights within 30 minutes of sunset, that questions arose as to whether race played a role in the arrest. “Some tickets make you scratch your head and say, ‘Why was this person stopped?’” said Luis Alemany, an immigration attorney based in the northwest suburbs of Atlanta.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway first entered into the 287(g) partnership with ICE in 2009, saying the program benefits the community by reducing crime and lowering the cost of incarcerating repeat offenders living in the U.S. illegally . The program’s positive reception showed early on that public safety was not the only concern. Residents are equally, if not more, concerned that immigrant culture “doesn’t quite mesh with suburban life,” the sheriff told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution on the day 287(g) was implemented. “People…complain about the quality of life in their neighborhood. They are concerned that the value of their property has decreased because, in their opinion, illegal immigrants are not maintaining their property because there are too many vehicles parked in the yards and too many people living in one house.”

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway in Lawrencville, Georgia, November 1, 2010. After several high-profile crimes committed by illegal immigrants, Conway made it his goal to reduce the population of these immigrants and declared his jail for a special immigration and customs enforcement program.  (Erik S. Lesser/The New York Times)

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway in Lawrencville, Georgia, on November 1, 2010. Conway registered his prison sentence in ICE’s 287(g) program in 2009.

Photo: Erik S. Lesser/The New York Times/Redux

Georgia lawmakers also began increasing penalties for drivers caught without a license, a move that disproportionately impacted people of color. The legislation was introduced after a sheriff’s deputy died in a car accident while an undocumented immigrant was behind the wheel. A new strike system was introduced, with fines being imposed every time a driver was convicted of driving without a license. Four strikes resulted in the driver being charged with a felony and given a lengthy prison sentence.

The state’s driver’s license law created a pipeline that funneled undocumented immigrants into local jail and 287(g) deportation proceedings for traffic violations. “If we don’t know who you are and can’t prove who you are, we have to lock you up,” Suwanee Police Chief Mike Jones said. “Our officers aren’t out there saying, ‘Are you an illegal immigrant?'”

But it’s not like they have to. Jones’ district is a wealthy, predominantly white enclave in Gwinnett County that is struggling to adapt to the region’s rapid demographic changes. The county’s Latino population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. Along with the growing African American and Asian populations, minorities now make up the majority of residents. Still, people of color are significantly underrepresented in elected office, a reason for the dispute laid out in a voting rights lawsuit filed in federal court last year.

An all-white panel of commissioners voted unanimously in June to continue Gwinnett County’s 287(g) partnership with ICE. Community members are outraged by what they see as a large discrepancy between the commission’s actions and the diversity of its residents, said Brenda Lopez, a former Gwinnett County immigration attorney whose recent election to the Georgia Legislature was an exception to the achievement gap for women and minorities — in November, she became the first Latina elected to the state’s General Assembly, even though Georgia has the 10th largest Latino population in the country.

For now, the best advice Lopez gives undocumented immigrants is to stay off the streets. “You can’t live in Gwinnett County without having a vehicle,” Lopez said. “All we can do is ask people not to drive. Whether that’s an Uber, whether that’s a taxi. Pay a driver and carpool. The best thing people can do these days is limit driving.”

Top photo: A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation in Atlanta on February 9, 2017.