by John G. Stewart
What a coincidence. Here we are, on July Fourth, celebrating the signing of our Declaration of Independence from a tyrannical British monarch who denied our colonial forebears their basic democratic rights and, at the same time, we discover that Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones has signed a secret agreement with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) that places at severe risk the democratic rights of thousands of our Knox County neighbors.
Granted, Jones is a bad reincarnation of King George III, but the denial of democratic rights we have witnessed in how he has gone about arranging for Knox County’s acceptance of the so-called 287(g) authority is a case-book example of arbitrary and non-democratic decision-making. Our founders declared they had had enough of the King’s “ … repeated injuries and usurpations.”
We feel the same way about Jones’ repeated refusal to hear community sentiment and take seriously community concerns about involving Knox County in this controversial program that places the human rights of many Knox County residents in real jeopardy.
Many of you no doubt will ask: What is this 287(g) business all about?
To reduce a complex federal program to its essentials, it is special authority granted to ICE, in essence, to deputize local law enforcement personnel to assume federal authority in the enforcement of our national immigration statutes. Under 287(g) authority, local law enforcement officials will have the power to decide whether an undocumented resident, usually apprehended for a minor traffic violation, is to be brought before a federal immigration judge for deportation. This authority traditionally has always rested with federal authorities since immigration matters belong to the federal government.
I was able to speak with Jones a couple of months ago about Knox County’s participation in the 287(g) program. He stressed to me several times that the ICE-bestowed authority would only be used in cases where someone had been arrested for a serious crime. Persons who are “ticketed” for minor offenses are not arrested and not brought to jail; hence, they would not encounter ICE-certified deputies. “Persons who are not arrested and not brought to jail will have no way of knowing that the 287(g) process is even in place,” the sheriff assured me.
“This is designed only to ‘streamline’ the process and save Knox County tax dollars,” he said.
That’s not the way it has turned out. Knox County jail over the past few months has had dozens of people arrested for minor traffic infractions and who now more than likely will be subject to the deportation process. The consequences can be severe: separation from family, loss of one’s car, loss of a job, disruption of the local community, widespread anxiety and fear among friends and neighbors.
There also are numerous examples of 287(g) certification causing real problems in other cities. Nashville, for example, found itself subject to a major damage award arising from a 287(g) arrest gone bad since the federal authorities will assume no liability for local arrests. Nashville has since dropped its participation in 287(g), leaving Knox County as the sole participating Tennessee jurisdiction. The city of Knoxville has declared it wants nothing to do with 287(g).
What’s particularly alarming is the sheriff’s absolute refusal to meet with community residents to discuss the pros and cons of 287(g) participation. The stealth process he followed even translated to a total lack of public notice when the county reached agreement with ICE. This fact was unearthed by local activists who on their own found the agreement posted on the ICE website; not a whispered word at the Knox County level.
Delegations of concerned citizens were summarily turned away last Friday when they went to the Sheriff’s office to seek a meeting. Who knows what to expect in the future?
The signers of the Declaration of Independence spoke out against the arbitrary and cruel acts of King George. It’s time for the citizens of Knoxville to demand a chance to be heard and taken seriously by the sheriff. The age of edicts handed down from on-high without any popular expression or participation ended for the colonists 241 years ago.
Tomorrow will not be soon enough for the people to be heard regarding 287(g) here in Knoxville.
John G. Stewart is a member of church of the Savior, U.C.C. and a former executive at TVA. He and his wife, Nancy, are Knoxville residents.