DALTON, Ga. — “My mother was detained on a roadblock,” Leslie Balladares said.
The 13-year-old was addressing a crowd of about 200 people including Dalton’s Mayor David Pennington and police Chief Jason Parker on Wednesday evening.
On May 21 her mother was driving her brother, Cristian Balladares, 9, to soccer practice when she went through the roadblock and was arrested because she was driving without a license.
“It’s been a month since I’ve seen my mom,” said the seventh-grader, as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Leslie shared her story during a meeting between city and local law enforcement officers and local Hispanics at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
The meeting was to respond to questions about roadblocks affecting Hispanics disproportionately and Georgia’s new law, HB 87, the Coalition of Latino Leaders and other Hispanics had raised during a meeting two weeks ago.
Among other things, HB 87, which is set to take effect July 1, would allow authorities to ask for identification from someone who is detained and penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants while committing another crime.
“We’ve heard your concerns,” Pennington told attendees.
“But I ask you to please understand we are one level of government. The higher the government, the higher the power. The local government cannot override the state government, and the state government cannot override the federal government,” he added.
Parker talked about the department’s responsibility to uphold the law in a fair way.
He said that even before HB 87, police officers can check the status of people while conducting an investigation.
In regard to the roadblocks, he said the main reason they are held is to address crimes like burglaries and traffic safety.
“During these road checks, many people from different colors drive through them,” he said. “We are trying to address traffic safety and not looking for certain people.”
He said Hispanics receive fewer traffic citations than non-Hispancs from the Dalton Police Department — one out of every seven.
A Chattanooga Times Free Press review of records showed that out of 32 traffic checkpoints conducted by Dalton police this year, most took place in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods or at entrances to the city’s carpet factories where many Hispanics are employed.
The most frequent ticket issued at the checkpoints — representing 22 percent of all tickets — was for driving without a license, which can lead to deportation if the person is in the country illegally.
Of the citywide citations, 3,011 people ticketed were white, 426 were Hispanic and 296 were black, records show.
Parker didn’t provide statistics on the number of people detained in road checks and the charges from last year as well as the locations, but he said his department was working on it.
America Gruner, president of the Coalition of Latino Leaders, said the meeting had been productive and she looks forward to continue the communication.
“We think it’s very positive that they agreed to come and were willing to listen, but we’re hoping to get some answers like the statistics we had requested,” she said after the meeting.
Bill Weaver, chairman of the Public Safety Commission of Dalton, called it a good meeting.
“Dialogue is critical in solving most any problem and I think we addressed most of the issues that were presented to us two weeks ago, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to do it.”
He said Leslie’s story is very sad, but it’s not a local law the officers were following.
“We have to continue the road checks for safety reasons,” he said.