A once-obscure federal program that empowers local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws has gained a foothold in Georgia and could expand fast.
The Cobb County Sheriff's Office joined the program this week , signing an agreement that will allow deputies to put detainees into deportation proceedings.
On deck is a select group of Georgia state troopers, driver's license officials and agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. And last week, the Hall County Sheriff's Office also applied for training under the $50 million program run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Once rare, the deals are gaining popularity, especially in the South. The 10 agencies already trained nationwide include the state patrol in Alabama, an anti-drug and fraud unit in Florida, and sheriff's departments in three North Carolina counties.
Proponents say it's worth spending local tax dollars to help time-pressed federal agents deport criminals who might otherwise return to the community. Critics charge the programs damage the trust between police and immigrant communities while opening a door to racial profiling.
The increased interest among Georgia authorities comes as they prepare to enforce one of the nation's toughest immigration laws, a sweeping measure targeting the state's estimated 250,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrants.
Beginning in July, jails must report to federal authorities all suspected illegal immigrants charged with felonies or driving under the influence. A bill now working its way through the General Assembly would add driving without a license to that list.
Jailers expect to submit far more names than ICE can actually deport. And, generally, there's nothing police can do about that. But things will be different in Cobb, home to large numbers of immigrants from Mexico, Brazil and countries across Europe, Africa and Asia.
Under the agreement with ICE, deputies in Cobb will be authorized to make a final determination on a detainee's immigration status and draft deportation papers themselves.
"If someone is here illegally and commits a crime, whether a misdemeanor or felony, they need to serve their sentence and be deported," Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren said in a release. "This program will be [a] useful tool in accomplishing that goal."
Warren, who declined to comment further until meeting with ICE next week, said he has yet to hash out how many deputies will receive training, when they'll start and other details. ICE is expected to pay for the training and equipment while Cobb covers salaries.
The state Department of Public Safety's legal department is reviewing a draft agreement that would put 25 to 30 of its employees through the training, said Mark McDonough, legislative liaison with the department's State Patrol.
Roughly 20 would be state troopers, with the remainder split between the GBI and the Department of Driver's Services.
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