by Alex Fields
Concerned community members have been asking to meet with Sheriff “J.J.” Jones about his proposed 287(g) program for some 14 months now, ever since ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) announced they were going to move forward on the Sheriff’s request to implement the program. After over a year, the Sheriff finally provided a space for the community to express concerns. On June 2, County Commissioner Amy Broyles hosted a community forum on this issue with the Sheriff and two of his officers present.
Nearly 200 people attended despite being given only a few days’ notice. Audience members lined up and asked questions for two full hours, expressing overwhelming opposition. During the entire forum, not one audience member expressed support for the program. A variety of serious concerns were raised, and the Sheriff’s responses were disappointing.
Attendees cited studies showing that the 287(g) program has resulted in racial profiling and high costs to local government almost everywhere it has been implemented. The Sheriff’s only response was to repeatedly say he doesn’t care about those other places, and that it won’t happen here. It’s hard to believe Knox County will be a magical exception when the Sheriff can’t even explain why it would be different here.
Several audience members also countered Jones’s claims about the lack of racial profiling in Knoxville by saying they personally had already been profiled in Knoxville. Jones claimed that no incidents have been reported, but it’s not reasonable to expect people to report incidents of discrimination to the very agency that discriminates against them—as several people pointed out, undocumented immigrants can hardly feel comfortable reporting profiling or other crimes against them when law enforcement is empowered to investigate their immigration status in retaliation.
The Sheriff also said several times that nobody would have reason to fear this program who wasn’t committing crimes, since 287(g) would be implemented only at the corrections level (that is, inside jails). It was pointed out to him that being arrested does not make one guilty, and this program can affect anyone taken to jail whether or not there is a trial or a guilty verdict. Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty?” Knowing that the corrections side of enforcement can investigate immigration status also encourages profiling in general, as police know that people they arrest for whatever minor or nonexistent violation can then be detained inside jails for immigration reasons. Significantly, 60-80% of “crimes” that lead to deportation proceedings are low level misdemeanors like traffic violations—hardly the kind of offense that should cause someone to have to live in constant fear of separation from their family.
The audience testified that the immigrant community, including legal residents, already lives in such a climate of fear. Families are separated by deportation and individuals are targeted for discrimination and afraid to report crimes because of policies like 287(g). Employers, landlords, and virtually anyone else who sees something to gain by exploiting someone’s legal status can and do blackmail immigrants in all manner of terrible ways by threatening to call immigration authorities. When local police are made to be part of that immigration system, immigrants have no one they can call when they are victims of wage theft, assault, rape, or whatever other offense (and all of these things have happened frequently in places with programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities). The Sheriff seemed dismissive and uninterested in these concerns.
We need to build trust within our community, not further degrade it. Immigrants contribute just as much to our community as anyone else, often working harder and longer and for less pay. Let’s call a spade a spade: this program is designed to deport more people, and to do it more quickly and more easily and with less federal oversight. It makes no sense to take new anti-immigrant measures locally at the very moment when a path to legalization for these same people is moving through Congress. We urge the Sheriff to listen to the community and reconsider his decision to implement this program.