Exclusive: ICE’s top official in Atlanta details enforcement priorities

The man in charge of immigration enforcement for Georgia and the Carolinas has a message for immigrants living here without proper papers: Stay out of trouble, be careful about who you hang out with and get ready to return to your homeland.

“They know that at any point while they are in the country illegally that they could be subject to enforcement,” said Sean Gallagher, the Atlanta field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “I would plan ahead because if you are encountered, you are going to be removed if the judge orders that.”

In an exclusive interview this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gallagher outlined his office’s enforcement priorities amid the Trump era, sought to dispel rumors about ICE’s tactics and pushed back against several Atlanta-area cities that have moved to limit their cooperation with his agency following President Donald Trump’s election. Gallagher also confirmed that ICE is still investigating the suicide of one of its detainees in South Georgia.

Based in downtown Atlanta, the former U.S. military police officer is overseeing a busy region for ICE at a time when the Trump administration is ramping up immigration enforcement. Gallagher’s officers have participated in several high-profile operations in the Atlanta region this year, apprehending dozens of people, including Iraqi and Somali nationals.

Soon after Trump moved into the White House his administration issued guidelines significantly expanding ICE’s targets for deportation. ICE’s focus was widened to include not only people with criminal convictions but those whose charges have not yet been resolved and others who “have committed acts which constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” People caught engaging in fraud or abusing public benefits programs could also face arrest and deportation.

ICE has not finished tabulating its arrests in Georgia and the Carolinas for the fiscal year that ended last month. But an ICE spokesman said that — as of June 30 — his agency was on pace to carry out 12,525 for that year, which would amount to a 41 percent increase from the previous year. However, the Obama administration — which was responsible for record numbers of deportations — apprehended more people in the same three states in previous years.

Trump’s repeated promises to crack down on illegal immigration have driven unauthorized immigrants further into the shadows and brought ICE’s tactics under more public scrutiny. Gallagher sought to knock down “rumors” that his officers are carrying out traffic checkpoints, conducting indiscriminate raids and racial profiling people.

“When my officers go out in the field every day, they are looking for specific people,” said Gallagher, who has spent 27 years in federal immigration enforcement. “They have an operational plan. And the arrest really is a culmination of all their hard work, surveillance, et cetera — the investigative work they do. I think there are many in the public space that want to spread rumors about what ICE officers do. But they are professionally, highly trained officers that have a very specific mission.”

ICE, Gallagher added, is focusing on arresting people who pose threats to public safety and national security. At the same time, he confirmed that his officers are also apprehending other unauthorized immigrants they are encountering while they are searching for their targets. ICE calls such apprehensions “collateral arrests.”

In 2011, the Obama administration issued a policy aimed at shifting the government’s focus toward expelling recent border crossers, serious criminals and those who threaten national security. Immigrants who were brought here as young children, who were attending school here or who had children who were U.S. citizens were to be given special consideration under the “prosecutorial discretion” memo.

Gallagher said the Obama era’s enforcement policies “fettered” his officers. Their morale has improved, he said, now that the Trump administration is giving them more latitude.

“We were prevented from enforcing the law as it is written,” said Gallagher, who previously served as ICE’s Boston field office director. “Under this administration, what they have asked us to do is enforce the law as it is written. And that is exactly what we are doing.”

Gallagher spoke to the newspaper a week after Trump outlined his requirements for any congressional deal that would extend protections for young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children without authorization. Last month, Trump announced the government would phase out the Obama administration’s Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which grants renewable two-year work permits and temporary protection from deportation. On Trump’s wish list are proposals to crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities,” expand cooperation between local law enforcement officials and ICE, and hire 10,000 more ICE officers.

Since Trump was elected, three Georgia cities — Atlanta, Clarkston and Decatur — have adopted measures in favor of restricting their cooperation with ICE. Decatur, for example, adopted a one-page policy prohibiting city police from arresting, detaining or transporting anyone based solely on ICE detainers. That policy, city officials said, codifies an unwritten policy Decatur police had been following for more than 10 years.

At issue are ICE detainers, which are requests the agency sends to local authorities. The detainers ask them to hold unauthorized immigrants for up to 48 hours beyond the time they would normally be released from jail so ICE can pick them up and seek to deport them.

Critics point to court ruling that say complying with ICE detainers can violate people’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Gallagher said it’s safer for his officers to pick up suspects at local jails.

“They lose some tactical advantage when they go out on the street because they are arresting criminals at their homes, at their places of employment or in the public space,” he said.

Gallagher also confirmed that the Trump administration is considering expanding a federal immigration enforcement program to additional counties in Georgia and the Carolinas, though he declined to identify them. Named after the law that authorizes it, the 287(g) program enables local law enforcement officials to help enforce federal immigration law. Four counties in Georgia — Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield — already participate.

“We hope to add another three or four before year’s end, possibly more” in Georgia and the Carolinas, he said. “There are certain jurisdictions that are interested and we are exploring those right now.”

Further, ICE could use additional officers as Trump has proposed, particularly in South Georgia, Gallagher added.

“We would certainly like to have an office in the southern part of the state to assist us,” he said. “I would definitely welcome the resources.”

This month, the AJC reported private officers working at ICE’s Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia failed to check on a detainee they had deemed a “suicide risk” as often as they are required under ICE’s standards before he hanged himself in his solitary confinement cell in May. One of those officers logged three visits to Jean Jimenez-Joseph’s cell that never happened, public records show. That officer’s “employment was terminated” on June 29, according to CoreCivic, the Nashville, Tenn.-based corrections company that operates the detention center through agreements with ICE and Stewart County.

Gallagher declined to comment about the case, citing a continuing investigation by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility. But he highlighted ICE’s standards for keeping its detention centers safe and secure.

“We require anybody who has an ICE contract to hold detainees to follow those very strict and rigorous standards,” he said. “We expect our contractors to offer an environment that is appropriate and humane. And all of our contractors do.”

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