Warren has become both a staunch defender and lightning rod of controversy since he became the state’s first sheriff to implement 287(g), a program that gives local and state law enforcement agencies immigration enforcement powers. Since July 2007, thousands of county inmates have been identified as illegal immigrants.
Warren poked fun at the controversy, joking that for a while fellow elected sheriffs would intentionally avoid him at meetings of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. He called it a “shame” that only four of the state’s 159 counties are currently participating in 287(g), though a few others have applied.
“We’re not profiling and we’re not arresting individuals because they’re illegal,” Warren said. “I wish I could and I wish I had authority, but I don’t.”
But critics of 287(g) claim that the program does discriminate by targeting minorities. In 2011, three foreign nationals from Mexico and El Salvador sued over Cobb, state, and federal immigration officials’ use of 287(g). In July, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals judges upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss the class action lawsuit.
Warren, a popular figure among Republicans, received a standing applause from Saturday’s capacity crowd at the Cobb GOP’s headquarters when he was introduced by party chairman Joe Dendy. He was the guest speaker at the party’s monthly breakfast meeting.
Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act allows law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of those in custody through a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement database. In 2007, the Cobb Sheriff’s Office became the first agency to participate in Georgia. Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield counties, along with the Georgia Department of Public Safety, followed.
Since January 2006, 287(g), which is used in 24 states, has been credited with identifying more than 279,300 suspected illegal immigrants, mostly a local jails, according to ICE.
Warren criticized officials in Washington for not providing enough leadership and funds to stem the tide of illegal immigrants, whom he said live off of taxpayers, take away jobs and commit crimes in the country.
As a result of 287(g), Warren estimated that the sheriff’s office – which operates Cobb County jail – has identified and transferred more than 11,000 inmates to ICE. From January to June of this year, ICE took custody of 534 inmates, according to sheriff’s office records.
The crimes they’ve been charged with range from minor traffic offenses to murder, according to Warren. “Minor traffic offenses are minor until someone runs a stop sign and T-bones someone,” he said.
The sheriff recounted the death of Deputy Loren Lilly, 41, of Marietta, who was killed New Year’s Day in 2007, while driving on Powder Springs Street, on his way to work at the jail. He was pronounced dead on the scene. The two men who were charged in the incident were suspected illegal immigrants.
“That individual had a fake driver’s license from North Carolina and rented a car from a rental company,” Warren said of the man who was driving. “The problem is, if you don’t have a driver’s license, you haven’t taken the test.”
In response to an audience member’s question about President Barack Obama’s recent immigration policy allowing some young illegal immigrants who came as children to stay in the U.S., Warren said he has sympathy for such individuals like Jessica Colotl, but feels they share responsibility for their status as adults.
“You can’t keep blaming your parents,” he said to applause.
Cobb’s first sheriff, Ireland native Tandy Martin, was elected by county voters in the early 1830s and faced that period’s serious problems of public drunkenness, horse and chicken thefts, and train robberies, according to Warren.
Today, the sheriff’s office four biggest challenges are illegal immigration, county population growth, a more violent inmate population, and mental health issues among inmates, said Warren. He said inmate violence is a “real bad issue” and he criticized the state and other agencies for allowing the recently expanded 3,077-bed jail to become “backed up” with inmates who have mental health problems.
Among the sheriff’s office duties are courthouse security, county jail operations and executing criminal warrants. In 2011, Warren said deputies served more than 24,000 criminal warrants, over 45,000 civil processes including court orders, and transported more than 200 inmates to court daily.
In 2003, Cobb established a 384-bed minimum-security Work Release Center, which Warren lauded. Warren estimated that if paid a minimum wage, the up to 150 non-violent inmates who work daily on public projects provide an estimated $2 million worth of work each year.
Warren was sworn-in as interim sheriff in December 2003, following the previous sheriff’s resignation. He was first elected as the county’s 42nd sheriff in November 2004 and faces re-election this November against Democratic challenger Gregory Gilstrap, whom he overwhelmingly defeated in 2008.
Unchallenged in the recent Republican primary, Warren, whose endorsement is prized among candidates, did not publically hand out any at the breakfast but did enthusiastically praise Vic Reynolds, who won the party’s nomination for district attorney. In return, Reynolds, who has no opponent in November, called Warren the, “Best sheriff in the state of Georgia.”