Through the rearview mirror, Alma watched the blue and red lights flash across her young son’s worried face.
As the police officer approached her car, panic set in. She didn’t have a driver’s license. She never had. Minutes later, a second officer arrived on the scene and asked Alma to exit the vehicle. Her son was crying even before she stepped out of the car, and she says the officer joked as he arrested her. “No license, Mexican,” he laughed.
Like many other undocumented single mothers living in the United States, Alma was taken to a detention center before she could make arrangements for her eight children. She worried most for her adult daughter, who was expecting a baby any day. It would be more than a week before she could rejoin her children.
Undocumented immigrant arrests rose 38 percent nationally during the first 100 days of the Trump presidency compared to the same time period in 2016. Georgia’s arrest rate increased by 75 percent in the same timeframe.
The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), an advocacy group that works on behalf of undocumented immigrants, says they witnessed a dramatic spike in hotline calls from and on behalf of women arrested by ICE.
Many are similar to Alma: single mothers and long-term residents of the United States with no experience with the criminal justice system. They are often kept in overcrowded facilities where many fall ill due to lack of medical care while their incarceration often leaves children unattended or cared for by the government.
The officer who pulled Alma over said he’d been following her for more than 20 minutes when he saw her tire touch the yellow median line. Alma was charged with driving without a license and failure to maintain a lane, although the second charge has since been dropped.
The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction over Alma’s town of Marietta, is one of four counties in Georgia that participates in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that delegates immigration enforcement authority to state and local police.
Initially enacted to combat violent gang activity and drug trafficking, ICE’s 287(g) program can erode trust between the public and local law enforcement. Like Alma, many Cobb County residents have been pulled over and detained for minor traffic violations. As a result, many undocumented residents avoid interaction with police by staying inside, isolating themselves from their communities and even choosing not to report crimes.
The Cobb County Sheriff’s office declined to comment on its practices regarding the 287(g) program. Spokespeople at the ICE Atlanta field office were not available for comment.
“It works like a pipeline,” says Julie Mao, a fellow with the National Immigration Project who works closely with GLAHR. According to Mao, the relationship between ICE and local law enforcement has been revamped under the Trump Administration.
On Jan. 25, the president issued an executive order removing Obama-era guidelines that asked ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize the arrest of undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records. Since then, overall arrests of undocumented immigrants have increased dramatically.
ICE’s Atlanta field office made 11,733 arrests across Georgia and the Carolinas between January and September of last year, including 4,183 non-criminal arrests. This marks a 82 percent increase in total arrests and a 367 percent increase in non-criminal arrests over the same time period in 2016. Mao says undocumented moms are a large part of the shift.
“I think during the Obama Administration, we would see those individuals as very sympathetic, hard-working women in their communities,” says Mao. “That is not being considered at this time.”