Despite the fact that Davidson County ended its controversial 287(g) immigration policy last fall after five years of sensational arrests, Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones says he's ready to get the same program started in Knox County.
More than a year after Knox County residents first requested a meeting to discuss the community's concerns about the 287(g) policy, Jones finally met them face-to-face to give some answers at a forum hosted by Knox County Commissioner Amy Broyles at the Knox County Health Department's auditorium last Tuesday night. The crowd of about 60 people who gathered to press him and two deputies on why Knox County needs 287(g) repeatedly brought up the abuse of undocumented immigrants in Nashville that stemmed from Davidson County's utilization of the program. The biggest concerns were racial profiling, arrest and deportation due to minor offenses, and the climate of fear many are sure the policy will create among Knox County's immigrant communities.
"I hear your concerns," Jones 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.
Broyles put the community meeting together herself after finding out when Jones, Director of Corrections Rodney Bivens, and Capt. Terry Wilshire—who will become the coordinator of the 287(g) program—could all meet and listen to community input. She 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."
Wilshire also emphasized that the policy will make Knox County a much safer place when sheriff's deputies have the power to detain undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds, and invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He implied the terrorists had come to the U.S. illegally and committed crimes while here—but, in fact, 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.
That statement seems to fly in the face of a recent study published by the American Civil Liberties Union, which examined the effects of 287(g) in Davidson County. There, the study found, more people who were arrested for minor crimes such as traffic infractions were deported than people who were arrested for felonies. One of the most widely publicized account of such an arrest involved a pregnant woman who went into labor after being arrested for driving without a license (an offense that usually earns a citation), and gave birth shackled to a hospital bed against doctors' orders.
Soon-to-be-former ICE Director John Morton (he's stepping down from his post this month) had advised the Obama Administration and his organization to prioritize the deportation of criminal and dangerous undocumented immigrants. He even issued a series of memos (referred to as the "Morton Memos") in 2011 that effectively set new guidelines for ICE agents to follow, including prioritizing dangerous criminals over immigrants with minor traffic infractions, and not pursing deportation of victims of crimes. This was before President Obama's executive order giving immigrants under the age of 30 a path to legal status. The ACLU study indicates that 287(g) worked too well, and wound up encouraging officers (both sheriff's deputies and Metro Nashville Police Department officers, who had no involvement in 287(g)) to profile people based on race in order to get them deported.
"Evidence indicates that the Sheriff's 287(g) agreement motivated some local police officers a) to stop perceived foreign-born people for minor infractions or pretextual stops and b) to arrest rather than issue citations to those individuals because of their racial or ethnic characteristics, thus facilitating their screening through the ICE database once they were in the Sheriff's custody," the study found. In fact, the percentage of people deported after being arrested solely for driving without a license went from 18 percent of arrests on the charge to 43 percent between 2005 and 2010.
The ACLU study also cited a survey of Latino Nashville residents done in 2008 by the National Council of La Raza and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which found that 42 percent of Latinos knew of a crime that occurred that wasn't reported to police because of the fear of deportation. The same survey found that 54 percent of Latinos would not call police if a crime happened in the future.
"When people fear interactions with the police, crimes go unreported, the entire population feels the impact, and the community becomes less safe," the study says.
Jones had apparently not read the ACLU study cited repeatedly by attendees at the forum, including assistant public defender Maya Sheppard, who works in the misdemeanors division of the Knox County Public Defenders office.
"I see a lot of cases in misdemeanor court for driving without a license. The majority of those cases, I would say, are Latino folks from the community. I see already that a lot of police are making arrests rather than issuing citations for driving without a valid license," she told Jones. She cited the figures in the ACLU report that found that almost 80 percent of all the arrests of undocumented immigrants were for low-level misdemeanors. "How are you to assure that now, with the awareness that this program is going on, that police in the region are not going to make more arrests based on driving without a license?"
Wilshire responded that many more people are processed through the 287(g) program than are deported, but didn't offer any numbers or statistics.
Jones was adamant that no one would be driving around looking for people who look like they might be undocumented.
"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 by ICE agents and taken to courts in Louisiana or Alabama. (There are no ICE detention facilities in Tennessee.)
But several people made the comment that racial profiling already happens. Carl Wheeler, who is African American, said he has been 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."
Jones said he wants Knox County residents to bring reports of racial profiling if it ever happens, and that he will not tolerate it from his deputies.
"This is a chance for us to get it right," Jones said repeatedly about adopting the policy.
None of the immigrants or advocates who attended the forum seemed to believe 287(g) will improve the county's safety, especially with evidence pointing to the distrust of law enforcement by undocumented immigrants in the ACLU study.
Lourdes Garza, the director of Hispanic Ministries for the Diocese of Knoxville, told the sheriff she sees that fear and distrust in action among the people she works with.
"There's already a climate of fear that you don't see," she told Jones. "This is adding more to it."