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How Metro Atlanta Became A 'Pioneer' Of Immigration Enforcement

Feb 13, 2018
Originally published on February 13, 2018 9:42 am

Arrests by federal immigration agents are way up.

Local law enforcement agencies are eager to help.

And judges rarely side with immigrants fighting deportation.

This is metro Atlanta. By almost any measure, it's one of the toughest places in America to be undocumented.

"I hope it's true," said Phil Kent, a member of the Georgia Immigration Enforcement Review Board. "I would hope that Atlanta is one of the tougher places."

Georgia has some of the strictest immigration laws in the country. Driving without a license, for instance, is a jailable offense here. So undocumented immigrants who get behind the wheel in this sprawling state risk arrest.

"We were a pioneer state ... almost every year in our legislature trying to tighten up with regard to immigration enforcement," said Kent, whose board is charged with ensuring that the state laws are enforced.

Illegal immigration has been a galvanizing issue in Georgia since the state became a magnet for undocumented workers.

Before the 1996 Olympics, immigrants poured into Atlanta to help build venues for the games. Then they were drawn by jobs in construction and agriculture, and the low cost of living. Now there are more undocumented immigrants in Georgia than in Arizona and New Mexico combined.

Nelson Avila Pia came from Guatemala in 2000 when he was 15 years old.

"I like the peace and quiet," Avila Pia said through an interpretor. "And the opportunities it gives us."

We sat down in a two-story, brick townhouse in a suburb of Atlanta that Avila Pia shares with his girlfriend and sister. He has a trendy haircut, cropped close on the sides and long on top, and a big, gold watch. He's done well for himself working in construction and house painting, and doesn't have a criminal record.

"I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't do drugs, nothing," Avila Pia said. "I just dedicate myself to work."

In Guatemala, he says, it's dangerous.

"If people saw my watch there, they would shoot me for it," he said.

In Atlanta, Avila Pia has always driven without a license. And he's been pulled over before. But last year, police stopped him, they said, because of his tinted windows. And handed him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Now he's facing deportation.

Immigration lawyers around Atlanta say they've seen a surge in cases like this, that start with a minor traffic offenses, and escalate quickly.

"These sorts of things may not have led to a detention a year and a half ago, but now they are," said Tracie Klinke, the chair of the Georgia Alabama chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "And usually, it's a fast track for removal."

More than 50 immigrants are waiting anxiously in the lobby of Nelson Avila Pia's lawyer, many with young children in tow. The lawyer, Christopher Taylor, says a lot of these people were picked up by immigration even though they've never been accused of a serious crime.

"Doesn't matter if you've been here for 20 years, had a good record, 15 kids, whatever you have," Taylor said. "There is no negotiation."

ICE officials say under the Trump administration, their priorities have changed. Sean Gallagher, the Field Office Director in ICE's Atlanta office, says his officers can now arrest any undocumented immigrants they encounter. Though he says criminals are still his top priority.

"If you are a criminal alien in this country, or you associate with criminals, then the chances are at some point my officers are going to come knocking," Gallagher said.

In fact, arrests of immigrants with no criminal record more than tripled last year in the Atlanta region, from 1,050 to 4,440. That was the biggest jump of any place in the country.

Why Atlanta?

"We have great cooperation with local law enforcement agencies," Gallagher said. "Big force multiplier for us in Georgia," as well as North Carolina and South Carolina, which are also part of ICE's Atlanta region.

Gallagher says it's a big help when local sheriffs notify ICE about undocumented immigrants in their custody under a federal program known as 287(g).

There are four counties in Georgia that participate in the program. Gallagher said that one of them, Gwinnett County, is the "most productive" 287(g) county in the country, "by far." According to ICE, officers in Gwinnett flagged more than 5,000 immigrants for the agency last year — more than one-fifth of all such encounters nationwide.

Once immigrants are in deportation proceedings, they wind up a few floors below Gallagher's office, in immigration court. Odds are against them there, too.

When immigrants try to claim asylum, for example, judges in Georgia rule against them more than 90 percent of the time. That's one of the highest rates in the country. And it's a big reason why deportations in the Atlanta region more than doubled last year.

"The numbers there are dismal, basically," said Brenda Lopez. "The ability to win a case there is very small."

Lopez is an immigration lawyer. She was born in Mexico and grew up undocumented outside Atlanta, before getting a green card in high school. She's also the first Latina ever elected to the Georgia legislature, representing a district that includes part of Gwinnett County.

When we sat down at her office a block from the gold dome of the state capital, Lopez said what's happened in Georgia is a "natural response" in a conservative place.

"I would say our state is most definitely a difficult state to live in," she said. "But there's a lot of great things, and that's why people continue to move here to Georgia."

Lopez says the city of Atlanta, and some of its more diverse suburbs, are already becoming more welcoming toward immigrants. She hopes that eventually the rest of the region will, too.

In the meantime, Lopez said, undocumented immigrants who do live here should know they'll have to make "tough choices." Some of the toughest in the country.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump has some demands as part of any immigration deal with Congress. He wants money to build a wall of course. And he also wants more money for the system of federal agents, prosecutors and judges who deport people. Some parts of this country are resisting a crackdown on people in the U.S. illegally, but other areas embrace the idea - as NPR's Joel Rose found in Georgia.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Arrests by federal immigration agents are way up. Local law enforcement agencies are eager to help, and judges rarely side with immigrants fighting deportation. This is metro Atlanta. By almost any measure, it's one of the toughest places in America to be undocumented.

PHIL KENT: I hope it's true (laughter). I would hope that Atlanta is one of the tougher places.

ROSE: Phil Kent is a member of the Georgia Immigration Enforcement Review Board. Georgia has some of the strictest immigration laws in the country. Driving without a license, for instance, is a jailable offense here. So undocumented immigrants who get behind the wheel in this sprawling state risk arrest. Kent's board is charged with ensuring that the state laws are enforced.

KENT: We were a pioneer state, almost every year in our legislature trying to tighten up with regard to immigration enforcement.

ROSE: Illegal immigration has been a galvanizing issue in Georgia since the state became a magnet for undocumented workers. First, before the 1996 Olympics, immigrants poured into Atlanta to help build venues for the games. Then, they were drawn by jobs in construction and agriculture and the low cost of living. Now there are more undocumented immigrants in Georgia than in Arizona and New Mexico combined. Nelson Avila Pia came from Guatemala in 2000, when he was 15 years old.

NELSON AVILA PIA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: He likes the peace and quiet here and the opportunities. We sat down in a two-story brick townhouse in a suburb of Atlanta that he shares with his girlfriend and sister. Avila Pia has a trendy haircut cropped close on the sides and long on top and a big gold watch. He's done well for himself working in construction and house painting.

AVILA PIA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Avila Pia says he doesn't smoke or drink or do drugs, and he has no criminal record. He says he just dedicates himself to work. In Guatemala, he says, it's dangerous. If people saw his watch there, they would shoot him for it.

AVILA PIA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: In Atlanta, Avila Pia has always driven without a license. He says he's been pulled over before but got away with just a fine. Then, last year, police stopped him because of his tinted windows and handed him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Now he's facing deportation.

Immigration lawyers around Atlanta say they've seen a surge in cases like this, that start with a minor traffic offense and escalate quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: It's standing room only in the lobby of Nelson Avila Pia's lawyer. More than 50 immigrants wait anxiously, many with young children in tow. The lawyer, Chris Taylor, says a lot of these people were picked up by immigration even though they've never been accused of a serious crime.

CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR: Doesn't matter if you've been here for 20 years, had a good record, 15 kids - whatever you have, there is no negotiation.

SEAN GALLAGHER: If you are a criminal alien in this country or you associate with criminals, then the chances are, at some point, my officers are going to come knocking.

ROSE: Sean Gallagher is the head of ICE's field office in downtown Atlanta. As with past administrations, he says criminals are the top priority for his officers. But now they can arrest any undocumented immigrants they encounter. In fact, arrests of immigrants with no criminal record more than tripled last year in the Atlanta region, the biggest jump of any place in the country.

Why Atlanta? Gallagher says it's a big help when local sheriffs tell ICE about immigrants in their custody. One county outside Atlanta flagged more than 5,000 people for ICE last year.

GALLAGHER: We have great cooperation with law enforcement agencies - big force multiplier for us here in Georgia.

ROSE: Once immigrants are in deportation proceedings, they wind up a few floors below Gallagher's office in immigration court. Odds are against them there, too. When immigrants try to claim asylum, for example, judges in Georgia rule against them more than 90 percent of the time. That's one of the highest rates in the country. And it's a big reason why deportations in the Atlanta region doubled last year.

BRENDA LOPEZ: The numbers there are dismal basically. The ability to win a case there is very small.

ROSE: Brenda Lopez is an immigration lawyer. She is also the first Latina ever elected to the Georgia legislature. She was born in Mexico and grew up undocumented outside Atlanta before getting a green card. We sat down at her office a block from the gold dome of the state capitol. She says what's happened in Georgia is a natural response in a conservative place.

LOPEZ: I would say our state is most definitely a difficult state to live in, but there's a lot of great things. And that's why people continue to move here to Georgia.

ROSE: Lopez says undocumented immigrants who do live here should know they'll face tough choices, some of the toughest in the country.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.