Eye on America: Feds enlist local law enforcement in ICE's immigration crackdown

Six counties in Georgia have joined a federal program known as 287(g) that deputizes local law enforcement to effectively act as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. CBS News went to the Gwinnett County Jail to see how the program is working.

"Under the Trump administration, right now we're going by all law, immigration laws," one deputy said. "So you come in for jaywalking, we find out that you're illegal, we hand you over to ICE. We work for ICE. We do not deport anybody."

Just north of Atlanta, Gwinnett County accounted for 20 percent of all 287(g) encounters last year, by far the most nationally.

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Gwinnett County Jail, Georgia CBS News

At the jail, 27-year-old Diaz Lopez said he was driving to his plumbing job when he was pulled over by police because his passenger was not wearing a seat belt. He was arrested for driving without a license. He said he's been in the U.S. for 11 years, and has never been deported before.

"I feel so bad," Lopez said. "I'm so scared. I don't like to go in my country. My family is here. My wife, she pregnant. This is -- I feel so bad."

Do more ICE arrests keep communities safe?

Unlike Lopez, 70 percent of those deported by ICE from the jail have prior criminal records, like Javier Cuatro. He said he wants to go back to his home country.

"I don't have a chance," he said.

Moments after we spoke to Cuatro, ICE arrived to pick up him, Lopez and two other inmates. They were transported to a detention center in Atlanta for possible deportation.

Nationwide, 78 local law enforcement agencies in 20 states participate in the 287(g) program, through which ICE deported close to 6,000 illegal immigrants last year -- 653 from Gwinnett County alone.

"If you're in a country illegally, the least you can do is obey that country's laws," said Butch Conway, Gwinnett County sheriff.

Conway signed the county up for the program in 2009.

We asked what Conway says to people who say the program is an excuse to profile individuals.

"If they don't commit a crime and come to a county jail, then we'll never have any contact with them," Conway said.

But some people are questioning the impact of the program.

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The federal 287(g) program deputizes local law enforcement to act as ICE agents. CBS News

"We are one of the worst states to be an undocumented individual," said Aisha Yaqoob, the policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. "Our communities are targeted based on what they look like. Police officers pulling people over for something as simple as a broken tail light or driving without a license."

Is it profiling, or is that them just doing their job?

"So just the thought of dealing with someone who is an undocumented person gives them a little bit extra push to maybe take them to the jail and see what they can do," Yaqoob said.

We asked Conway what he says to the critics who argue the county is arresting nonviolent offenders and sending them over to ICE.

"Well, they're wrong," Conway said. "I've known illegal aliens personally for many years. They work in the community, they live in the community, they're great people. If they're going to be here illegally, you drive, you're taking a chance."