More than a year after Knox County residents first requested a meeting to discuss the community's concerns about the 287(g) policy, Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones finally met face-to-face to give some answers at a forum hosted by Knox County Commissioner Amy Broyles at the county health department's auditorium last night.
Broyles put the community meeting together herself after finding out when Jones, Director of Corrections Rodney Bivens, and Captain Terry Wilshire--who will become the coordinator of the 287(g) program--could all meet and listen to community input.
"He's been wanting to meet with the community," Broyles said before the meeting. "He was concerned he'd give the wrong information. I know it's been hard for people to understand."
Broyles has been aware of the county's immigrant community's opposition to the 287(g) policy, which involves training sheriff's deputies to essentially become U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers (they'll have the credentials after training), and allows them to issue detainers on anyone who is found to be an undocumented immigrant. Detainers are notices from ICE typically sent to local law enforcement agencies that they intend to pick up and gain custody of an individual found to be a known undocumented immigrant. That usually starts the deportation process. Under 287(g), Knox County sheriff's deputies would be able to issue detainers themselves (as ICE agents).
"There's a lot more leeway with this program," Jones said, explaining that deportation is not going to be the end result for every undocumented immigrant who finds him- or herself in the county jail, especially if he or she has no prior arrests or warrants. "This program is supposed to keep people on the right track."
Jones repeatedly made clear that unlike several other agencies around the country who have signed the 287(g) memorandum of understanding, Knox County would only have corrections officers (meaning those who work solely in the county jails) become certified ICE agents.
"It is not a law enforcement entity that goes out into the community," he said. "If you are a law-abiding citizen, you will never know 287(g) exists."
He went on to point out that since corrections officers wouldn't need to keep people in jail to wait for ICE approval from another city, undocumented immigrants would be able to pay a bond to get out of jail, and make an appearance at ICE court at a later date. Currently, people without documentation are picked up ICE agents and taken to courts in Louisiana or Alabama (there are no ICE detention facilities in Tennessee).
Jones also made clear that Knox County is not funding any of the training, equipment, or software that comes along with signing the MOU--it's all completely funded by the federal government. He also emphasized several times that he'll have the power to terminate the agreement at any time, especially if the department must shoulder any costs.
But the specter of the cruel treatment of undocumented immigrants while the policy was in effect in Davidson County--most notably the woman who gave birth while shackled to a hospital bed because she drove a car without a license--haunted the meeting attendees, most of whom were there to advocate for undocumented immigrants. Their biggest concern was the culture of fear policies like 287(g) create in immigrant communities, and the possibility of being profiled because of race.
As multiple people who attended pointed out during a Q&A session, many people in Nashville were arrested and deported under 287(g) in Davidson County for minor traffic infractions like driving without a license, which would usually earn a citation and an appearance at a municipal court. Jones had apparently not read the ACLU study cited repeatedly by attendees at the forum.
Lourdes Garza, the director of Hispanic Ministries for the Diocese of Knoxville, explained to the sheriff that immigrant families already live in fear of separation by deportation.
"There's already a climate of fear that you don't see," she told Jones. "This is adding more to it."
Carl Wheeler, an African American man, said he was at the forum as a concerned citizen, and a victim of racial profiling himself. His son and his son's friend have also been stopped by police as they entered Wheeler's house, he said. Wheeler asked the sheriff what policies would be implemented to prevent racial profiling under 287(g).
"I think the [existing] policies work," Jones said, adding that even though people were saying racial profiling happens, they couldn't bring specific instances.
Wheeler still believes racial profiling happens in Knox County.
"Rampant is a strong word," he said. "But it's an accurate word."
Emma Cosigua, an immigrant from Guatemala, explained to the sheriff that it's quite easy to pick out Hispanic people.
"They don't look like a lot of Knoxvillians," she said.
She also emphasized how beneficial it would be to have Hispanic translators, who speak English as their second language, working in the sheriff's department.
Captain Wilshire essentially agreed.
"We don't want someone who only speaks high school Spanish," he said. ICE will give the department software that allows for easy translation, he said, and there is currently one deputy who speaks English as his second language, and is Hispanic.
"This is a chance for us to get it right," Jones said repeatedly about adopting the policy.
Wilshire argued that 287(g) would only strengthen community safety, and invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He implied the terrorists had come to the U.S. illegally and committed crimes while here, but they all had visas, and only Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested prior to the attacks for immigration violations.
"Look at 9/11. When folks come to this country illegally, sometimes they're hiding their identities. This gives us more tools to identify folks. Someone may come in with a simple misdemeanor, and once they go through this program, they may be found to be wanted for a lot more than a simple misdemeanor. This gives us a lot more tools to identify those folks that may be doing harm to the community," he said.
Ultimately, Jones said, he is responsible for what happens in Knox County, and can't compare it to any other city or county.
"I hear your concerns," he said many times throughout the night. "[But] I have to make the decisions for Knox County [sheriff's department]."
He said he expects to sign the 287(g) memorandum of understanding within the next few weeks after technical agreements on matters such as transportation of detainees are ironed out.