What is 287(g) and why do we oppose it?

Photo Credit: Meghan Conley

by Meghan Conley and Fran Ansley

What is 287(g)?

287(g) is a voluntary program through which state and local law enforcement agencies can choose to have their officers trained and deputized to act as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The program uses local resources to enforce federal immigration law.[i]

What is the history of 287(g) in Knox County?

Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones first applied to join the 287(g) program in 2009. Immigrants’ rights advocates in Knoxville and beyond mounted a hard-fought campaign in opposition to the proposal, and federal authorities eventually denied the sheriff’s application in 2013. Many in Knox County remember Jones’ alarming and dehumanizing response to this rejection: “I will continue to enforce these federal immigration violations with or without the help of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If need be, I will stack these violators like cordwood in the Knox County Jail until the appropriate federal agency responds.” In February 2017, Jones renewed his application. Local state and national groups have objected. ICE has not yet announced a decision. Update: We recently learned that a signed memorandum of agreement (MOA) between ICE and Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones has appeared on the ICE website.  For more information, click here.

How does 287(g) work?

Local law enforcement agencies opt into the 287(g) program through a contract with ICE, known as a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), which defines the scope and limitations of the partnership. If the application is accepted, ICE provides a four-week training for selected local officers, who are then deputized to act as ICE agents. Designated officers are allowed to ask people questions about their immigration status, issue immigration detainers, and initiate deportation proceedings among other delegated powers.[ii] In his 2017 application, Sheriff Jones requests training for 10-15 officers who were formerly assigned to other duties on behalf of the residents of the county.

287(g) versus Secure Communities?

Like many other jurisdictions across the country, Knox County already collaborates with ICE through several programs, including the Criminal Alien Program and Secure Communities. Under these programs, local officers relay information to ICE and receive requests from ICE related to individual prisoners, but they do not take on the duties of federal immigration agents. The 287(g) program goes much further, deputizing local law enforcement officers and putting them to work directly enforcing federal immigration law. The officers take on these federal duties, but local government pays their salaries and assumes liability for their mistakes or misconduct.

Why is 287(g) problematic?

287(g) is a flawed and controversial program. It is expensive, leads to indiscriminate deportation of people who pose no threat to community safety, encourages racial profiling, erodes trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement, and falsely portrays the entire undocumented community as a danger to society.

287(g) is expensive

Sheriff Jones has argued that 287(g) will save taxpayer money by speeding up the time it takes for a decision from ICE on whether to start the deportation process. “We were probably keeping [immigrants] 30-40 days in our jail before ICE made that determination… Those 30-40 days cost tax payers $100 a day.”[iii] Aside from the significant constitutional issues raised by the claim that immigrants in Knox County have been held for a month or more without charge while waiting for a determination from ICE, the idea that 287(g) is likely to save money for local taxpayers is contrary to the experience of many other jurisdictions that have participated in the program.

For instance, a report by researchers at the University of North Carolina on the costs and consequences of 287(g) in that state found that the program’s first year of operation in Mecklenburg County cost $5.3 million, and in Alamance County $4.8 million. More recently, the American Immigration Council reports that Sheriff Ed Gonzalez of Harris County, Texas has announced he is terminating that county’s 287(g) agreement and will reallocate the program cost of $675,000 and put it toward other priorities, such as raising the department’s clearance rates of major crimes.

Aside from operating costs such as paying personnel to carry out federal law enforcement duties, 287(g) significantly increases the risk of liability for participating jurisdictions. In one case that drew national attention, Nashville/Davidson Metro Government ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle a civil rights case brought by Juana Villegas, a pregnant woman who was forced to labor in shackles after being arrested for driving without a license.[iv] Most observers agree that the sizeable settlement in her case played a large role in Sheriff Daron Hall’s decision to terminate Nashville’s 287(g) agreement in 2012.

287(g) results in widespread deportation of people swept into jail for minor offenses

Despite commonplace assurances by those in charge of 287(g) programs that they focus on getting rid of dangerous criminals who threaten community safety, over the lifetime of the 287(g) program nationwide, numbers show that a startling number of those deported were originally brought in on minor charges. In 2011, the Migration Policy Institute reported that a shocking half of 287(g) activity focused on people accused of misdemeanors and traffic offenses.[v] Closer to home, a 2012 report on Davidson County’s 5-year experiment with 287(g) found that the vast majority of 287(g) deportation proceedings there (some 10,000 over the five years) were triggered by non-violent, misdemeanor crimes, many of which never even resulted in a conviction, most of them minor traffic charges.[vi] Meanwhile in 287(g) jurisdictions, immigrant families are torn apart, business activities are disrupted, and community networks are shredded, all with little benefit but major cost to the larger community.

287(g) encourages racial profiling

287(g) exacerbates and encourages biased policing practices. Public officials in some 287(g) jurisdictions have made overtly racist statements and have supported blatantly discriminatory practices. But infamous rogue jurisdictions like Maricopa County in Arizona or Alamance County in North Carolina are hardly the only problem. A study of Davidson County’s 287(g) program found that during its 5-year lifetime, from 2007 to 2012, racial profiling and bias based on appearance, ethnicity or language skills had affected many Metro Nashville residents at key points including police stops, at the point of arrest, and at the moment of booking.[vii]

Sheriff Jones claims that his officers “never have and never will” engage in racial profiling of Knox County residents.[viii] However, Knox County officers, like those elsewhere, are not immune to conscious and unconscious racial bias. Residents in Knox County have complained for years and continue to complain that profiling by local law enforcement officers is a problem.[ix] Of course, Sheriff Jones can and should express opposition to racial profiling, but his denial that there is even a challenge raises far more questions than it answers. Although Jones argues that he “won’t let things happen and get out of hand like they have in other places,”[x] he offers no plan to avoid civil rights abuses. Sheriff Jones’ refusal even to acknowledge the potential for a problem in Knox County is, in the words of the Rev. Dr. John Butler, president of the Knoxville Chapter of the NAACP, “inconsistent with taking leadership to identify, address and train officers for the actual eradication of racial profiling.”[xi]

287(g) erodes community trust in law enforcement

287(g) drives a wedge between immigrant communities and local law enforcement officers. This exacerbates vulnerabilities of already marginalized communities as immigrant victims and witnesses of crime avoid police for fear of immigration consequences. Sheriff Jones says that he understands how difficult it is to cultivate community trust, stating, “We work very hard in [minority] communities to gain that trust … and they trust us to do just what I said: be good stewards and make sure there are no shortcuts taken and make sure there are no prejudices, no biases and no racial profiling.”[xii] However, based on the Sheriff’s refusal to engage transparently with the community around 287(g), his dehumanizing “cordwood” statement following rejection of the previous 287(g) application, and his denial of the existence of a single instance of racial profiling in Knox County, we doubt that minority communities in Knox County agree that the Sheriff has earned their trust. Changes both rumored and real in immigration enforcement have already heightened fear and have increased mistrust between local law enforcement and the immigrant community. If the 287(g) program is implemented, it will only exacerbate that divide.

287(g) portrays the entire undocumented community as dangerous to society

ICE claims that 287(g) removes dangerous criminal immigrants by screening for immigration violations among those taken into participating jails. Similarly, Sheriff Jones has stated to the press, “If you’re here illegally, and you’re a law abiding citizen, you’ll never know 287(g) exists.”[xiii] However, research clearly indicates that the program acts as an indiscriminate funnel, sucking in immigrants picked up on minor charges, and putting them into deportation proceedings.

In fact, Sheriff Jones appears to concede this issue in the “Needs Assessment” he submitted to ICE in February 2017 to indicate his continued desire to join the 287(g) program. This document — made public only through records requests filed by advocates — indicates that the top five reasons foreign-born people are arrested and brought into the Knox County jail under current practice do not fit the picture of a program that will only be ridding the community of dangerous criminals. Of the five leading charges three are traffic offenses (Driving without a License, Driving without a License in Possession, Driving while Privilege Suspended) and two are offenses related to alcohol (Driving Under the Influence and Public Intoxication). [xiv]

Perhaps even more telling, KCSO reports that approximately 20 immigrant prisoners per month (or 240 per year) are presently the subject of ICE detainers in Knox County but they estimate that under a 287(g) agreement, Knox County would turn over 1800 detainees per year (or 150 per month). This is a huge increase. Simple math says that unless KCSO has been failing to apprehend over a thousand dangerous criminal immigrants every year, they will not be able to meet this steep new quota without pulling in over a thousand non-dangerous immigrants under the new regime.

What do other jurisdictions say about 287(g)?

As Sheriff Jones pursues 287(g) for Knox County, other jurisdictions reject police-ICE entanglement:

  • Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero: “We are not required by.law to be ICE agents and we will not voluntarily be ICE agents… because our job is to keep the community safe and we cannot do that if people are afraid of calling us when something happens.”[xv]
  • Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi: “Illegal immigration is a law enforcement issue, but it’s not our law enforcement issue in the Oak Ridge Police Department… We do not enforce federal laws. We are charged with enforcing state statutes and city ordinances. That’s what we do and will continue to do.”[xvi]
  • Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher: “We have never asked the immigration status of anybody we have ever encountered. And we have no plans to change that practice.”[xvii]


What Now?

For years, the 287(g) program has been the target of strong public criticism. Federal funding has been in decline, and the number of participating jurisdictions has shrunk. However, in January 2017, President Trump announced his strong endorsement of the program, and his desire to expand its reach. Knox County is the only county in Tennessee with a current public application to join the 287(g) program, and one of a small number of jurisdictions nationwide that have announced an interest in this widely discredited program.

The people of Knox County have a unique opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate that we do not welcome a program that burdens local taxpayers, tears families apart, encourages racial profiling, and erodes community trust in law enforcement.

—– Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors, June 2017

[i] As explained in ICE’s Fact Sheet on “Delegation of Immigration Authority Section 287(g) Immigration and Nationality Act”: “The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 added Section 287(g), performance of immigration officer functions by state officers and employees, to the Immigration and Nationality Act. This authorizes the secretary of DHS to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, permitting designated officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions.”

[ii] See “The Performance of 287(g) Agreements” by the DHS Office of the Inspector General.

[iii] Pagan, Gabriella. “Knox County sheriff speaks on 287(g) application, mayoral run.” WATE Channel 6 News, May 3, 2017. (http://wate.com/2017/05/03/knox-county-sheriff-speaks-on-287g-application-mayoral-run/).

[iv] Julia Preston, “Settlement for a Shackled Pregnant Woman,” New York Times, October 17, 2013.

[v] Migration Policy Institute, “Delegation & Divergence: 287(g) State and Local Immigration Enforcement,” <http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/delegation-and-divergence-287g-state-and-local-immigration-enforcement&gt;.

[vi] ACLU of Tennessee, “Consequences and Costs: Lessons Learned from Davidson County, Tennessee’s Jail Model 287(g) Program,” (http://www.aclu-tn.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/287gF.pdf)

[vii] ACLU of Tennessee, above.

[viii] Pagan, above.

[ix] Cameron, Taylor, Law Enforcement, Citizens, Discuss Race Relations at Knoxville Town Hall, WATE, Oct. 6, 2015 <http://wate.com/2015/10/06/fbi-hosting-town-hall-meeting-on-race-relations-in-knoxville/&gt;; Report of Community Commission on 287(g), July 23, 2013.

[x] Pagan, above..

[xi] Butler, John. Letter to the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. April 3, 2017.

[xii] Whetstone, Tyler. “Knox County 287(g) application to ‘combat illegal immigration,’ turn in up to 1,800 ‘aliens’ a year.” Knox News Sentinel, May 12, 2017 (http://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/local/2017/05/12/knox-county-287-g-application-combat-illegal-immigration-turn-up-1-800-aliens-year/318893001/)

[xiii] Pagan, above.

[xiv] Terry Wilshire, “Needs Assessment,” Feb. 2017. The application indicates that the top five charges for US-born people, on the other hand, are the following: Driving under the Influence, Theft of Property, Public Intoxication, Driving While Privilege Suspended, and Theft by Shoplifting.

[xv] Witt, Gerald. “Knoxville mayor: KPD officers aren’t ICE agents.” Knox News Sentinel, May 21, 2017. (http://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/2017/03/21/knoxville-mayor-kpd-officers-arent-ice-agents/99453708/)

[xvi] Kraus, Carolyn. “ORPD doesn’t enforce federal immigration laws.” The Oak Ridger, May 9, 2017. (http://www.oakridger.com/news/20170509/orpd-doesnt-enforce-federal-immigration-laws)

[xvii] Jett, Tyler. “Fletcher: Police won’t seek to deport immigrants.” Times Free Press, May 3, 2017. (http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2017/mar/03/fletcher-police-wont-seek-deport-immigrants/415701/)


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