A year after officials in Fulton County, Georgia, passed a resolution urging the sheriff to limit cooperation with deportation efforts, law enforcement is considering allowing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official to work out of its jail.
The proposal, which has not yet been signed by ICE, was confirmed in documents the Southern Poverty Law Center obtained through an open records request and shared with The Huffington Post. Immigration advocates fear that if approved, the proposal would give ICE agents unfettered access to the jail to track all foreign nationals, even if they weren't charged with or convicted of a crime.
Advocates plan to attend a county commissioners meeting on Wednesday and press them to do what they can to prevent the proposal from moving forward.
"It would be a huge step backward for purposes of Fulton County's treatment of immigrants in their custody," said Eunice Hyunhye Cho, a staff attorney for SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project.
Critics of police involvement in immigration enforcement have made considerable strides in recent years. About 340 jurisdictions stopped fully cooperating with ICE's Secure Communities program based on concerns over its constitutionality and impact on police's relationships with the community.
But a new program, along with national backlash to so-called sanctuary cities that don't assist in deportation efforts, is turning that trend around. Now, more than half of the jurisdictions that limited cooperation with ICE have agreed to work with immigration enforcement agencies in some capacity, according to an agency spokesman.
In Fulton County, which includes parts of Atlanta, the sheriff stopped honoring ICE detainers -- requests to hold individuals who would otherwise be released -- in June 2014. County commissioners approved a resolution in September 2014 urging the sheriff against allowing ICE access to county facilities to conduct interviews or for other purposes. The resolution also recommends that the sheriff not respond to inquiries "unless ICE agents have a criminal warrant, or unless county officials have a legitimate law enforcement purpose that is not related to the enforcement of immigration law."
Colonel Mark Adger, the county's chief jailer, said the office has not changed its policy and still does not honor ICE detainers.
"This is an option both parties can agree to do in the interest of public safety," he said in an email about the proposed memorandum of understanding.
The sheriff's office said the memorandum of understanding obtained in the open records request is old, but did not provide a current copy. The memo provided to the SPLC would allow an ICE officer to have a workspace in the Fulton County Jail on weekdays, and require law enforcement to provide policy reports and records when available. ICE agents would be responsible for "investigating and tracking of foreign nationals that are arrested for felonies, significant, misdemeanor, or any other offences [sic] that could have a negative impact on public safety, but do not meet the current ICE guidelines," according to the memo.
The Priority Enforcement Program was created to take the place of Secure Communities when the administration scrapped it last November. Under PEP, immigration agents are supposed to ask police for notice before an individual is released if they are deemed a priority for deportation -- for example, if they have been convicted of certain crimes, repeat border crossers, national security threats or recent entrants into the U.S. Although not the norm, as it was under Secure Communities, ICE agents can ask police to hold individuals on their behalf for a limited period.
But PEP has not fixed immigration advocates' skepticism of police involvement in deportation efforts. Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said ICE agents seemed to be moving more quickly to detain individuals, and that purported priorities did not appear to be being followed.
"We defeat Secure Communities nationally and now we have to defeat Priorities Enforcement Program," Nicholls said. "We are finding that what they are saying in guidelines and in policy is not what is happening in the real world."
Other jurisdictions are similarly increasing cooperation with ICE, to the chagrin of immigration activists. The changes come amid controversy over sanctuary cities after an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times allegedly murdered Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old American woman in San Francisco. The sheriff's office did not notify ICE before releasing the man a few months earlier and does not collaborate with the agency without a court order or warrant. Steinle's family sued the San Francisco sheriff's office, ICE officials and the Bureau of Land Management in September over her death.
Los Angeles County officials decided last month to allow ICE agents to enter their jails and interview people convicted of serious crimes ahead of their release. Officials said the policy only applies to individuals who would not be protected under the California Trust Act, a law meant to shield low-level criminal offenders and people never convicted of crimes from being automatically caught up in deportation proceedings.
"None of us want somebody released back into the community who's going to continue to reoffend with violent crimes or serious crimes," Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told NBC 4 Los Angeles in an interview that aired on Sunday. "We want to be able to use all the tools available to us to deal with that."