In the northern suburbs of Atlanta in February, days after President Donald Trump went on a 3 a.m. Twitter rant to defend his crackdown on “illegal criminals” (“Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”), the first batch of immigrant arrests for the day started rolling in just after peak rush-hour traffic. City police in the town of Norcross that morning pulled over a Latino man for driving too closely behind the car ahead of him. He didn’t have a valid driver’s license, and officers could not confirm whether or not he was in the United States legally. He was taken into custody on the spot and hauled to the county jail down the road to wait until federal immigration officials arrived.
By 10:09 a.m., a second immigrant man was booked into the county jail. This time, a deputy from the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office picked up a Mexican man for texting while driving. Bond for his offenses topped $850. But getting released from jail was not an option — Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, had a 48-hour window to come and transfer him to an immigrant detention center in south Georgia, located 200 miles away from his home.
Four minutes later, in came a third inmate, 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 indicator of the deportation threat level they face than the length of their criminal record or when they first arrived in the United States. Routine traffic stops are beginning to prove how exceptionally broad Trump’s definition of an “illegal criminal” is, and how that definition is being applied to the undocumented immigrants local police encounter in their day-to-day work. And for regions with a history of racial tensions and hostility toward immigrants, local leaders now effectively have carte blanche to turn any interaction with police into the first step toward deportation.
Gwinnett County, one of the most diverse regions in Georgia, has seen an uptick in the number of immigrants caught in removal proceedings by what started as a minor infraction. Local police there flagged nearly 500 people to ICE for potential immigration violations between February and April. Only a fraction of those were linked to charges of serious crime. Of all pending charges that accompanied the referrals, 70 percent were the result of traffic-related violations — most for driving without a license, according to county data on jail admissions compiled by The Intercept.
The arrests mark a nearly five-fold increase in the number of immigrants held for ICE at the Gwinnett County Jail over 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 accompanying charges were traffic related.
“People would be pulled over six months ago, but it wouldn’t lead to an interaction with ICE,” said Tracie L. Klinke, an immigration attorney in Marietta, Georgia. “What we’ve seen over the last few months is a quiet resurgence where traffic stops are leading to contact with ICE.”
Law enforcement officials in Gwinnett County have a special partnership with the agency. The jail there is one of 40 facilities across the country participating in the 287(g) program. Local officials are authorized to double as federal agents and issue a hold on immigrants who might be deportable, also called a detainer, on behalf of ICE. More than 14,000 people detained at the jail have been referred to federal immigration agents since 2009, close to double the next highest facility in Georgia, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, run by Syracuse University.
After peaking in 2012, however, detainer rates in Gwinnett County had steadily dwindled in the face of national outcry and opposition to 287(g) and efforts by the Obama administration to narrow the pool of immigrants targeted for deportation, with focus primarily applied to recent border crossers or those with felony convictions. Now, under Trump, plans are underway to expand and revive the program, which local advocates have long cautioned encourages police to use traffic violations as a pretext to racially profile drivers whom they assume to be undocumented. Infractions at times were so minor, from a tiny crack in a windshield to failure to turn on headlights within 30 minutes of sunset, to prompt questions of whether race factored into the arrest. “Some tickets would make you scratch your head and wonder: 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 the 287(g) partnership with ICE in 2009, saying that the program benefited the community by reducing crime and cutting costs of jailing repeat offenders living in the U.S. illegally. Positive reception of the program early on proved that public safety was not the only worry. Residents were equally if not more concerned with how immigrant cultures “don’t quite blend” with suburban life, the sheriff told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution the day 287(g) was implemented. “People … complain about the quality of life in their subdivision. They are concerned about how their property values have been lowered by what they believe to be illegal aliens not keeping up their properties, having too many vehicles parked in yards and too many people living in a house.”
The Georgia legislature also began stiffening penalties for drivers caught without a license, a move that disproportionately impacted people of color. Legislation was introduced after a sheriff’s deputy was killed in a car accident while an undocumented immigrant was behind the wheel. It created a new strike system hiking fines every time a driver was convicted of driving without a license. Four strikes, and the driver faced felony charges and extended jail time.
The state driver’s license law set up a pipeline that funneled undocumented immigrants into the local jail on traffic violations, and into deportation proceedings with 287(g). “If we don’t know who you are and we can’t prove who you are, then we have to incarcerate you,” Suwanee Police Chief Mike Jones said. “Our officers aren’t out there asking ‘are you an illegal immigrant?’”
But it’s not as if they have to. Jones’s district is an affluent, mostly white enclave in Gwinnett County struggling to adjust to the rapid pace of demographic shifts in the region. The county’s Latino population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. Together with growing African-American and Asian populations, minorities now make up the majority of residents. Still, people of color are vastly underrepresented in elected office, a source of contention outlined 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 were incensed by what they saw as a major disconnect between the commission’s actions and the diversity of its residents, said Brenda Lopez, a former immigration attorney in Gwinnett County whose recent election into the Georgia legislature was an exception to the achievement gap for women and minorities — in November, she became the first Latina voted into the state General Assembly, even as Georgia has the 10th largest Latino population in the country.
For now, the best advice Lopez has for undocumented immigrants is to stay off the road. “You cannot live in Gwinnett County and not have a vehicle,” Lopez said. “All we can ask people is to not drive. Whether that’s Uber, whether that’s a taxi. Pay a driver and have carpools. The best people can do these days is limit driving.”