MARIETTA — Less than a month into his tenure in office, Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens has fulfilled a major campaign promise by ending his office’s involvement in immigration enforcement.
Effective immediately, Owens announced at a press conference Tuesday morning, the sheriff’s office will no longer partner with U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) under the controversial program known as 287(g). The announcement was made before a packed audience of community members, many of whom held signs reading, “287 Gone / Thank you Craig Owens.”
Declaring “a new era in Cobb County,” Owens said the measure is part of his broader commitment to “truth, trust and transparency.” He was also adamant that by ending the program, the sheriff’s office and Cobb’s various police departments will be able to do their work more, not less, effectively.
“Us ending this program does not mean Cobb County is a free for all,” Owens said. “I can almost guarantee you that police chiefs will continue to do the excellent work that they do around Cobb County.”
Immigration enforcement reform was one of Owens’ top priorities coming into office, and distinguished him from his opponent Neil Warren, a Republican incumbent who had held office since 2003. Owens became the second metro area sheriff to end involvement with 287(g) this month, after newly elected Gwinnett Sheriff Keybo Taylor.
The 287(g) program was first implemented in Cobb in 2007, as Warren claimed to be the first sheriff in Georgia to work with ICE. Under Warren’s command, the sheriff’s office would check with other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies (including ICE) after arresting an individual to determine if they were “wanted.” In the case of ICE, the sheriff’s office turned individuals over to ICE custody after their local charges were cleared.
Warren touted the program as a success, saying in an interview with the MDJ last year that cooperation with ICE resulted in a 50% decrease in foreign nationals entering the county jail. Between 2008 and 2018, the Cobb Sheriff’s Office transferred nearly 12,000 people to ICE custody.
At the announcement, Owens was flanked by his newly selected command staff, and invited a number of community leaders and public officials to speak. Among them were Commission Chairwoman Lisa Cupid, who called Owens’ decision “bold, necessary, and overdue,” and Cobb’s new District Attorney, Flynn Broady.
“This is the day after Martin Luther King Day, and Martin Luther King said, ‘It’s always the right time to do the right thing.’ So I think you’re doing the right thing, Sheriff Owens,” Broady said.
“This is going to make our community safer … so continue to support us. Continue to know that everything we’re doing is working for the best interest of our entire community.”
Other speakers included Ben Williams, president of Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Cobb chapter; Javier Diaz de Leon, consul general of Mexico; and Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, all of whom praised Owens for ending the program. Owens also introduced a new community liaison, Carlos Garcia, formerly executive director of the Pro-Immigrant Alliance.
“You have fulfilled that campaign promise – the promise of a new Cobb County,” said Garcia, who endorsed Owens during his election campaign last year. “There were so many nights … my phone would not stop ringing. Those families being separated, children being separated from their parents.
“Today is a new day. And the most important word today is, thank you.”
After the event, Viridiana Fuentes and Jorge Bello called the announcement a “huge success for organizing.” They’re both activists with the progressive group “La Gente de Cobb” (The People of Cobb), and said that while ending the sheriff’s involvement with immigration enforcement was a victory, it would take time to earn the respect of Cobb’s immigrant community.
“I grew up in Douglas County … and a majority of my family worked in the Cobb area,” said Bello, who now lives in Atlanta. “Every time they would come through here — I know personally, myself, I felt discriminated against (and) pulled over more often than anywhere else.”
“I went through a situation where I didn’t want to call the cops when I was ten, because I was afraid they were going to take our parents away,” Fuentes said. She was raised in Cobb, and still lives in the county.
“We have so many things to do, because that whole building trust is going to take a long time.”
Owens acknowledged as much in his own remarks, recalling times when major crime investigations were hindered because immigrant residents were unwilling to approach the sheriff’s office, and cited that erosion of trust as a major reason for pulling out of the program.
“They had a saying when I was in Precinct 2. If you see brown,” Owens said, referring to the sheriff’s uniforms, “you run. If you see blue, you stay and talk.”
Bello said he will continue to advocate for concerns he has about law enforcement in immigrant communities, such as ensuring individuals detained since Owens took office, but before the program’s official termination, don’t end up in custody of immigration officials. Owens said during the press conference that he would look into the matter, and more information would be forthcoming.
But as the event ended, and a mariachi band began to play, the mood in the room was decidedly celebratory. The new sheriff even took to the floor and waltzed for a moment, reveling in his audience’s approval.