How Metro Atlanta Became A 'Pioneer' Of Immigration Enforcement
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.
"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.