In a predominantly Latino immigrant neighborhood outside of Warner Robins, a woman got up and headed to work.
She has asked not to be identified, so that coming forward about what happened next on that recent morning won’t be used against her, as she fights to stay in the country she’s called home for 15 years.
As she drove away, the woman said, she saw a Houston County sheriff’s deputy parked at a house near hers.
“He was waiting,” she said in Spanish.
Knowing that she was in the United States illegally, and she was driving without a license, the woman immediately checked her speed, and was relieved to see she was only going a mile or two over the limit, she said.
But the deputy followed her anyway, “as if he were checking me,” she said, until she reached a stop sign. That’s when the deputy turned on his siren.
“At that moment, I thought, ‘This is it,’ ” she said.
She confessed to the deputy that she did not have a license. He took her cellphone, she said, loaded her into the back of his cruiser and drove her away. He never said anything to her about her speed, she said.
The woman spent the day in the Houston County jail, where staff sent her fingerprints to a federal database to see if any other law enforcement agencies wanted her. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did. So Houston County held her until ICE agents arrived and took her to ICE’s Irwin County Detention Center, where she then spent more than three weeks in custody.
Now out on $10,000 bail, the woman is awaiting her day in immigration court, she said.
Her story is not surprising or unusual to her. In Houston County, law enforcement officers “just see you're Latino, and stop you,” she said.
Since 2009, when the Houston County Sheriff’s Office began participating in a federal program that routinely checks the fingerprints of jail inmates against ICE’s database, ICE has requested the sheriff’s office hold at least 668 people on suspected immigration violations, according to ICE’s own data available through November 2017. In more recent months, ICE has requested the detention of dozens more people arrested in Houston County, according to jail inventories reviewed by student reporters from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.
The sheriff’s office has routinely complied with the requests — voluntarily, and at local taxpayers’ expense — holding inmates in county jail for sometimes days until ICE agents can come take them away. While many other jurisdictions also honor such requests, known as “ICE detainers,” the number of people detained in Houston County is far higher than anywhere else in Middle Georgia.
That may be due in part to demographic factors, but some immigrants and their advocates contend that the Houston County Sheriff’s Office’s actions on immigration enforcement go beyond mere cooperation with federal authorities and instead rise to the level of active collaboration, including alleged racial profiling.
Houston not targeting immigrants, chief deputy says
Local law enforcement agencies “cannot be compelled to cooperate with ICE, but can do so volitionally,” said Jason Cade, who teaches immigration law at the University of Georgia. Federal and Georgia laws forbid localities from adopting policies of non-communication with ICE, but anything else they do — from holding people for ICE, to intentionally targeting people who are in the country illegally — is at their discretion.
In response to the allegation that Houston County deputies are targeting Latino drivers with the intent of holding them for suspected immigration violations, Chief Deputy W.H. Rape said, “I emphatically deny it.” Rape spoke on behalf of Sheriff Cullen Talton, who declined to be interviewed.
Rape could not respond in detail to the allegations made by the woman who was arrested near her home because reporters could not reveal too many specifics without compromising her anonymity. But the deputy who arrested her, in the incident report he filed at the time, wrote that she was driving far faster than the mile or two over the speed limit she claims to have been driving.
In general, Rape said his department is doing nothing to intentionally target people who are in the country illegally. Rather, he maintained that deputies are enforcing basic public safety laws, and people with immigration issues are getting ensnared incidentally. He also pointed out that many of the people booked in Houston’s jail were not arrested by sheriff’s deputies but by the municipal police departments in Warner Robins, Perry and Centerville. It is, however, solely the choice of the sheriff’s office to hold those inmates for ICE.
In Middle Georgia, Houston County is not alone in its practice of routinely honoring ICE detainers on people who have already been arrested for something else. Reporters interviewed sheriffs or their subordinates in Bibb, Crawford, Jones, Monroe, Peach and Twiggs counties — all said they hold inmates for ICE at their jails too.
And yet, Houston County has held more people for ICE in recent years than all of those counties combined. Macon-Bibb County, despite having nearly the same population size as Houston, held only 173 people in the period in which Houston held 668, according to ICE data.
Bibb County Sheriff David Davis attributed that discrepancy, in part, to demographics.
“Houston County has a little bit more farmland, and they use more migrant labor down there,” Davis said. “They have a larger immigrant population than we do here, especially Hispanic and Latino population.”
But that demographic difference might not be large enough to account for the difference in ICE detainers. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population of immigrants from Latin America (both lawfully and unlawfully present) in Houston is about 40 percent greater than in Macon-Bibb, but the number of people Houston has held for ICE is nearly 400 percent greater than the number held by the Bibb County Sheriff's Office.
Davis’ comments also hint at a possible difference in philosophy compared to his counterparts in Houston County: Local law enforcement agencies that go too far in enforcing immigration law risk engendering mistrust in their communities that can make it harder for them to do their most important duties, he said.
“If (immigrants) are worried about getting arrested and sent away simply because they've overstayed a visa, they're not going to tell you about the drug seller that’s living two doors down,” Davis said. “I want that drug seller.”
Rape said his own department in Houston County has tried to take a similarly balanced approach. They have not, for example, participated in any “big ICE roundups,” he said, referring to recent incidents from around the country in which local law enforcement agencies have actively assisted ICE agents in carrying out raids and mass arrests of people suspected of immigration violations.
“Are all illegals murderers, rapists, drug users, drug dealers? No,” Rape said. “So, that's why we don't make the decision to turn them over to ICE or not. We let ICE tell us — do you need this person?”
But ICE’s criteria for answering that question have changed dramatically under the Trump administration, leading many people accused of minor offenses to be prioritized for detention and possible deportation, and contributing to a recent uptick in ICE detainers at local jails.
Immigrants detained after driving without licenses
During the latter years of the Obama administration, ICE was directed to prioritize the detention and deportation of people who were not only in the country illegally but were also deemed particular threats to national security or public safety, such as people convicted of violent felonies. One justification given for this policy was that the nation’s immigration court system is overburdened and can only deport so many people per year. Therefore, priority was given to demonstrably dangerous criminals.
In January 2017, newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump issued an executive order that significantly broadened the category of people whom ICE should prioritize. That category now includes “removable aliens” who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” which includes driving without a license — a misdemeanor crime in Georgia.
Of the 35 people the Houston County Sheriff’s Office held for ICE in 2017 for whom reporters were able to obtain records, jail inventories indicate about half of them had been originally arrested for driving while intoxicated, a violent offense or other serious crime. But the other half had been arrested for unlicensed driving, mostly in combination with citations for minor traffic violations, such as speeding, failure to signal a turn or following too closely. These offenses led to all of those people being detained for alleged immigration violations.
According to the same jail records, five of those people detained for ICE in 2017 were arrested solely for unlicensed driving — an offense that is only discoverable after a traffic stop has been made. Incident reports for those arrests, provided by the sheriff’s office and Warner Robins Police Department in accordance with the Georgia Open Records Act, shed some light on what led to the original traffic stops.
For example, in at least three incidents since 2017 that resulted in ICE detainers, Houston deputy R. R. Brainard pulled over drivers on Interstate 75 on the suspicion that their windows might be more heavily tinted than is allowable under Georgia law. Brainard serves on the sheriff's office's "ICE unit," which Rape said stands for Interstate Crime Enforcement and has nothing to do with immigration.
“The suspected tint violation provided probable cause to conduct a traffic stop,” he wrote in one report. In each of those incidents, the drivers did not have licenses, were arrested and ultimately held for ICE. They were never actually cited for tint violations.
Those facts suggest these may have been “pretextual” stops, said Cade, the UGA law professor. That’s when an officer pulls someone over for one reason with the true intent of investigating something unrelated. Federal courts have established that pretextual stops are legal, he said, provided that the pretext itself was legitimate cause for a stop.
But Macon-based immigration attorney Jennifer Moore has another way of describing what leads to such stops: “We call it driving while brown,” she said.
From tinted windows to ICE detention
One of those people pulled over by Brainard on the grounds of a window tint violation is Adrian Saucedo-Luviano, the 30-year-old proprietor of La Calentana, a small bakery and takeout restaurant in Tifton, where he hangs a sign above the ice cream counter declaring the premises an “ICE FREE ZONE.” It is not a reference to ice cream.
Saucedo-Luviano emigrated from Guerrero, Mexico, with his uncle and brother when he was 17, he said. In the United States, he first found work in a restaurant.
“I didn't like how they treated me there,” he said in Spanish. So he quit and started baking bread at home and selling it, supplementing his income as a farmhand. He saved up, opened La Calentana in 2014, and now employs two people there.
A month ago, he drove to Atlanta to buy merchandise for the restaurant. On his way back down I-75, he noticed Brainard in his marked sheriff’s vehicle, perched on the side of the highway near Perry. Saucedo-Luviano passed. The deputy pulled out and followed him closely.
Brainard spent the next two minutes switching lanes around him, pulling up alongside the borrowed Pontiac G6 he was driving and peering over, Saucedo-Luviano said.
“He was trying to see who was inside the car. Then he, like, recognized I was Hispanic, I think,” Saucedo-Luviano said. “And from there, everything started.”
In Brainard’s version of the story, the deputy’s suspicions were first aroused when he saw Saucedo-Luviano slow down as he passed by on the interstate. It was then, Brainard wrote in his report, that he noticed the tint of the Pontiac’s windows. He also wrote that he noted the car had a Texas license plate.
“The tint was so dark, you could not see into the vehicle,” Brainard wrote. “As I was alongside the vehicle looking at the tint, the driver of the Pontiac slowed down, which I felt was an effort to not let me get behind them again.”
Upon being pulled over, Saucedo-Luviano presented Brainard with his passport, instead of a license, which he did not have.
“I looked through the passport and saw no stamps or indication that he entered the country legally,” wrote Brainard.
“He didn’t treat me bad,” Saucedo-Luviano said of Brainard, who arrested him on the roadside for unlicensed driving. “The mistreatment started when I got to the county jail, where they did the whole process. It was there that I knew I was in trouble.”
Staff at the Houston County jail in Perry gave Saucedo-Luviano two sheets to fill out, he said, “as if they were trying to act as ICE — telling me I needed to give them all my information regarding my legal status.”
He refused, he said.
After the sheriff’s office held Saucedo-Luviano for two days, ICE agents transferred him to their Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, where he spent another six days. Members of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, with whom he has volunteered for many years, raised his $12,000 bail to get him out.
“It was hard. We feel powerless, because I don't think anyone deserves to be there, especially for just not having a license,” he said. “I had people working to get me out, but there's a lot of people that don't have anybody working to get them out.”
Brainard did not respond to a request for comment. But Rape denied Saucedo-Luviano’s allegation that he was pulled over because of his ethnicity: “He’s driving a car with tinted windows. How could we racially profile him (when) he’s sitting behind a window you can’t see through?”
Regardless of whether window tinting is so strong that the driver inside is invisible, officers know there’s an elevated chance the driver is a person of color, argued Moore, the immigration attorney in Macon.
“There was one point when heavily tinted windows were popular, and you have a lot of people who are immigrants who are driving old used cars because that’s what they can afford,” she said.
Detentions might be unconstitutional
Representatives from the Georgia Latino Alliance and the advocacy organization Project South recently requested a meeting with Rape to discuss some of his department’s practices, which he accepted.
Project South legal director Azadeh Shahshahani presented Rape with an argument that she and her colleagues have been making to any local law enforcement leaders who will listen: Holding people for ICE after they have already posted bond for their non-immigration offenses is unconstitutional, she said.
“An ICE detainer is not a judicial warrant. It has no judicial force,” Shahshahani said in a subsequent interview, pointing to several recent federal court rulings from around the country in which judges have found that ICE’s suspicion that a person may be in the country illegally does not give local authorities sufficient probable cause to justify detaining anyone.
“We told (Rape), ‘You are the one who is on the hook,’ ” Shahshahani said. “If somebody is held unconstitutionally, you are the ones who will be sued.”
Rape was unpersuaded, he said. But this is an argument that some other local officials have found compelling.
Last month, Athens-Clarke County became the most recent of at least eight Georgia communities to adopt written policies against honoring ICE detainers without a warrant. The reason, according to a written statement from the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office, is that “the Sheriff wishes to avoid the potential risk to the county of civil litigation relating to ICE detainers.”
In Houston County, Rape maintains that he has the legal authority to hold people for 48 hours (or more on weekends and holidays) purely on the basis of an ICE detainer, at least until the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta weighs in on the matter, which to date it has not. The longer the jail holds a person, the more time ICE has to actually come and pick them up, which Rape estimates happens in about three-quarters of the cases he sees.
ICE officials argue that if local jails stop holding people for agents to come pick up, the result will be increased public safety risks. Instead of detaining people within the secure environment of a jail, “my officers now have to knock on a door,” said acting ICE director Thomas Homan during a recent visit to Atlanta, as reported by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Atlanta is among the jurisdictions that have recently stopped honoring ICE detainers.
“It’s a matter of time before we knock on the wrong door and one of my men or women don’t come home at night,” he said.
‘It's got us caught between a rock and a hard place’
“We're not criminals,” the woman from the beginning of this story said of herself and other people who are in the country illegally.
“It's very unjust what they make us go through,” she said. “Ever since I got here, I've been working in order to raise my kids.”
Like her, Saucedo-Luviano is now out on bail, awaiting his date in immigration court. He’s not driving, he said, and is afraid of what will happen next. He’s also frustrated at what he must endure to remain in a country where he feels he and others like him are making a needed contribution.
“In south Georgia, I don't think immigrants are taking jobs of Americans or legal people, since the majority of this area is in agriculture. I don't see a lot of people fighting for those jobs,” he said.
Of the people whom his department has detained for ICE, Rape said, “They want to blame somebody — ICE, the country’s immigration (system),” but, he argued, they must also take responsibility for their own choices that led to them being subject to possible deportation.
“I'm not against anybody. I think the immigration thing is a mess,” Rape said, criticizing federal elected officials who have failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform. “It's got us caught between a rock and a hard place, and we don't like that, but we don't have any choice — if we’re gonna enforce the law.”
This article was reported by students in Adam Ragusea’s investigative reporting class at Mercer University. Jaya Alaan, Katie Atkinson, Austin Barrett, Matthew Causey, Jiali Chen, Drew Daws, Taylor Drake, Adelia Henderson, Melissa Henriques, Paige Hill, Laurel Huster, Mitch Jaugstetter, Dylan Malamala, Jayla Moody, Kyle Mullins, Summer Perritt and Megan Rosinko also contributed to this report. The Telegraph’s Laura Corley and Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Grant Blankenship served as advisers.