Dalton Residents Talk Immigration Enforcement
DALTON, Ga. (WDEF) — Immigration enforcement is at the forefront, in part due to President Trump’s executive orders, but it’s been on the minds of law enforcement officers in Whitfield County for several years now.
While local officers can’t look for illegal immigrants, they can check on their status if they end up in the county jail.
President Trump’s administration may be working to crack down on sanctuary cities and illegal immigration, but deportation concerns for many in Dalton, Georgia are nothing new.
“In the past, they were deporting people without any criminal charges, and even young people, students, so we are concerned about that,” said America Gruner, Coalition of Latino Leaders. “We’d rather have a relationship with law enforcement, and to find ways to work together, instead of feeling that we are persecuted by that agreement.”
Gruner is talking about the 287(g) program, implemented at the Whitfield County jail in 2008.
The sheriff’s office says it was brought in because of demand for immigration enforcement reform, with a goal of removing dangerous criminal aliens.
There, a few select Whitfield County detention officers with special training have access to a federal database, where they can check on a foreign born individual’s criminal history.
“If there’s something there that’s in question, they will be detained, they will go before a deportation judge, and it’s up to him what the status is,” said Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood.
Only four counties in Georgia have the program, out of 38 in the U.S.
Local officials say it even saves the taxpayers money.
“It kept folks out of our jail,” said Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock. “We could do checks immediately instead of waiting for somebody from Atlanta or another ICE location to come here, so we didn’t have to detain people for days, waiting on appointments.”
And law enforcement officers say immigrant residents shouldn’t be concerned about deportation, as long as they don’t break the law.
“Generally speaking, if they stay below the radar, and don’t violate state law, the Georgia criminal code, on a jailable offense. So stopping somebody out here on the street for running a stop sign, they could be illegal, and we’ll never know it. They get a ticket, they go on about their way. Can’t even ask them if they’re illegal. But if it is a jailable offense, a DUI, and they come to the jail, then our immigration officers can check their full status at that point. So you already have committed a violation to be in jail to be checked,” Chitwood said.
Gruner, however, says it’s not always that simple.
In Georgia, it’s against the law to drive without a license. If you’re stopped without one, you could spend at least two days in jail.
“You don’t need to have committed a crime, a serious crime to be detained or deported, because you were caught without a license, so that was the most common reason that people were deported between 2009 to 2012,” Gruner said. “Not having a license, that’s not a crime. It’s an offense, and for some people, they criminalize us saying, ‘Well, it’s against the law in the state, driving without a license, so that makes you a criminal.’ We are not criminals. We need to drive because we need to go to work, to school, to have a daily life.”
But Chitwood says often times when someone’s deported, there’s a lot more to the story.
“Last calendar year, we had 540 encounters, and of that 35 individuals were deported, so that to me is not a very high percentage,” Chitwood said. “And often times, what people don’t know, they say, well, ‘They were caught for DUI in Dalton, Georgia, and they were deported.’ What they don’t know or don’t tell you is they may have had a 10-year sentence in California for selling cocaine, and they just got out of prison, and they were not to return to the United States. So did the DUI deport them? No. Their prior history and prior record is what deported them.”
Chitwood emphasizes they’re not picking on anyone. He says the 287(g) program is part of common protocol for law enforcement.
He added, on March 15, there were 464 inmates in the Whitfield County jail. 342 were white, 70 black, and 52 Hispanic.
Despite controversy over the program, some are calling Dalton a sanctuary city.
The non-profit educational group, Ohio Jobs and Justice PAC, keeps track of sanctuary cities throughout the U.S., and has Dalton on their list.
But local officials and advocates News 12 spoke with dispute those claims.
“If the question is, does Dalton turn a blind eye to illegal activity or people who behave dangerously, or behave in a disorderly way, then the answer is no,” said Chief Jason Parker, Dalton police department. “I’ve seen news accounts where some cities may take extra precautions to shield individuals from federal investigations. We don’t do that. If there’s a federal investigation that involves our jurisdiction, we participate with those federal authorities, but we also conduct our operations based on Constitutional standards.”
If Dalton never was a sanctuary city, then what’s bringing so many immigrants here?
Mayor Dennis Mock says it’s the jobs in the carpet industry.
“We needed workers desperately, and they filled those worker slots,” Mock said. “Just by the fact of having employment, good employment for folks, I think that was the first welcome.”
About 60 percent of Dalton’s population is Hispanic.
Mock says the city is working to get more Hispanics involved in the community, but it’s not always easy.
“Now we’re doing everything we can to bridge the gap between the two cultures, and it’s difficult because the Latino community is very hesitant to be very upfront, because we do have a large population here, and there are quite of few of those that are probably improperly and undocumented,” Mock said.
Gruner says she wants everyone to come together.
Even though Dalton has never been a sanctuary city, she says she’d like to see it become one.
“We want the city or the county to recognize that we don’t want them to break the law, to get in trouble. We just want them to see us as part of the community,” Gruner said. “We are one. And if we are deported, or we are persecuted, the whole community would be affected. Not just the Latinos, or the Latino businesses, but the carpet industry, the whole city, the whole county would be affected.”
Chief Parker says it’s possible Dalton could become a sanctuary city one day.
But for now, “If you’re not breaking the law, then you shouldn’t be too concerned about Dalton,” Parker said.
Here’s more information about Whitfield County’s 287(g) program: