by Hammad Sheikh
In May, Sheriff Spangler renewed Knox County’s 287(g) program, which authorizes his officers to enforce federal immigration law. The renewal of 287(g) will have dire consequences for our community. As an immigration attorney practicing in Knox County, I see how this voluntary program has pushed an already vulnerable population to even greater risk. It is a mistake for our Sheriff to harness our county’s limited resources to the severely compromised federal apparatus of mass detention and deportation. And in this unprecedented time of pandemic, Spangler’s mistake is even more dangerous.
Undocumented immigrants are an essential part of the Knoxville community, economy, and culture. Unfortunately, they are also particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as most businesses were shuttered and their workers admonished to shelter-in-place, many undocumented immigrants were deemed “essential” workers. The invisible yet critical labor of our undocumented neighbors continues as they work in our fields, our factories, our restaurants, at large and small businesses across the county, caring for our old and our young, and even delivering food and medicine for those of us unable to travel.
We cannot overlook the vital role undocumented people play in our community, nor the risks they face. The threat of deportation hovers over undocumented people whenever they leave their homes, whether they are driving to work or taking their kids to the doctor. In Knox County, because of 287(g), minor traffic infractions can permanently separate an undocumented person from their family. Once arrested, an undocumented immigrant can be sent to a detention center far away. If the detained person is allowed to reunite with their family while awaiting the outcome of their case, they will expend $6,000 to $8,000 for an immigration bond alone. The family separation, the financial strain, the emotional trauma of being put in jail for months is unjust for a traffic infraction, especially when the local government’s participation in 287(g) is optional.
The Sheriff’s participation in this voluntary program is especially egregious in the midst of a pandemic, when conditions of immigration detention centers are particularly horrifying. One immigration judge, a military veteran, explained: “I’ve never witnessed an utter lack of concern for people like I have here. In my former life, we treated captured Taliban and ISIS with more humanity.” The National Association of Immigration Judges has made an urgent call to require implementation of health and safety measures at detention facilities. Sheriff Spangler’s renewal of 287(g) during the pandemic demonstrates a disregard for the health and safety of immigrant detainees.
There is no evidence that 287(g) decreases crime. In Knox County, 80.8% of inmates with ICE holds are non-violent offenders. In fact, 287(g) undermines public safety by effectively silencing undocumented people when they are victims of crime. Undocumented people are less likely to report crimes committed against them because they fear calling police could lead to deportation. I have seen this happen numerous times with my clients who face grave danger or abuse; they are afraid to call the police for help. Similarly, 287(g) deters undocumented people from seeking medical care because they fear potential interactions with law enforcement. 287(g) makes us all less safe by placing our vital undocumented neighbors in compromising circumstances.
Nationwide, the overwhelming majority of law enforcement agencies have declined to participate in 287(g); in Tennessee, only two of 95 counties participate. Elsewhere, extensive legal action has been taken to limit the use of 287(g), and local governments are forced to defend the program with taxpayer dollars. In North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County, the estimated cost of the first year of their 287(g) program was $5.3 million. Sheriff Spangler has not disclosed the cost of his 287(g) program to Knox County taxpayers.
Life is uncertain; heartbreaking tragedies await all of us. For those invisible and vulnerable among us, 287(g) causes tragedies and crushing heartaches. As an immigration attorney, I see the grave consequences of 287(g), including the fears of undocumented people and their separation from loved ones. Sheriff Spangler insists that people who oppose 287(g) do not understand how it works. However, I am shocked by his renewal of the program precisely because I understand the deep tragedies it causes.