Today we mourn the murder of Jewish congregants at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The murderer was motivated by anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and xenophobia. He specifically professed hatred for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which for the last 131 years has been resettling immigrants and refugees who are fleeing persecution.
We condemn this horrific act of violence and terrorism, and we stand against white supremacy in all of its forms.
Note: This talk was given in 2014 at a vigil in response to the child migrant crisis. It is worth revisiting now, given recent reports that the Trump administration is considering a proposal to close the southern border to migrants.
I’ve been asked to speak today to provide context for the humanitarian crisis that we are facing, and to explain why so many young people are showing up at the US-Mexico border.
Before I do that, however, let me start by identifying some things that have not caused this crisis. You’ve probably heard pundits, politicians, and reporters blaming the Obama administration for the current crisis, saying that these young people are coming to the United States because our country is too soft, and that we treat undocumented people too well.
Every Wednesday morning around 8:00 AM, most roads are clogged with school traffic and work traffic. Scattered around the highway, though, hidden behind big trucks and squished between soccer moms and university professors and factory workers, are around thirty cars from all over the county, with warm bodies and anxious minds contained in them, and they are heading to a cul-de-sac in West Knoxville. They’re going to their weekly check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Many undocumented immigrants in the United States routinely check in at their local ICE field office. During the Obama era, this was procedure for people who were not considered “deportation priorities”: family people, people with no criminal records. If you’ve been detained for immigration violations and are out on bond, you check in there, too. You drive a long way to people who want you out of the country, look into their eyes while they talk to you in another language, and remind them you’re still here. If you miss one, woe betide you.
Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN) recently discovered that the Knox County Jail has entered into a secretive contract to house immigrant detainees. In August, AKIN noticed an alarming increase in the number of immigrants detained in the county jail. Further investigation revealed that the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), under the leadership of former Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones, signed an agreement to voluntarily detain immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including people from our community and surrounding counties. Combined with KCSO’s participation in the 287(g) program, implementation of this “bed contract” means that the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has become a willing and fully operational arm of the federal deportation regime.
AKIN has spent the last year tracking the number of immigrants who receive ICE holds in the county jail. From September 2017 through July 2018, we documented an average of 18 ICE holds per month, ranging from a low of 14 detainees in May 2018 to a high of 28 in December 2017. In August 2018, at least 72 immigrant detainees were booked into the jail, an increase of 300% in the number of monthly detainees over the average from previous months. In the last year, the Knox County Jail has detained at least 269 immigrant detainees, 72 of whom were detained in August. In other words, more than a quarter of Knox County’s immigrant detainees from the last year were detained in August alone. This trend is likely to continue as long as KCSO maintains the bed contract.
Residents of Knox County should be deeply concerned that the jail has become a secretive ICE detention center. Immigration detention centers are notorious for the lack of oversight surrounding their operating standards, enabling systemic abuse of immigrant detainees in facilities elsewhere. Under the Jones administration, the Knox County Jail was cited numerous times for its abuse of inmates, including the use of a “torture chair” against a mentally ill inmate. What expectation can we have that immigrant detainees housed in our backyard are treated lawfully, with dignity, and in a manner consistent with our values? What standards will govern the Knox County Jail’s immigrant detention center, and who will this facility be accountable to?
On Tuesday, police announced that they had discovered the body of Mollie Tibbetts, an Iowa College student who went missing five weeks ago. Authorities have identified the suspected murderer as Christian Rivera, who allegedly followed Tibbetts and attacked her when she threatened to call police. That same evening, Tim Burchett, the outgoing mayor of Knox County and a candidate for Congress, tweeted: “How many people must die on the alter [sic] of political correctness before we correct this problem?”
Perhaps Mayor Burchett is on to something here. After all, it is clear that the problem, so eloquently voiced in the #MeToo era, is that of men harassing women, even escalating to physical violence against those women when they demand to be left alone.
However, it appears that men’s violence against women is not the foremost problem in Burchett’s mind. His tweet was actually a response to allegations that Christian Rivera is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.
What, then, is the “problem” that Burchett aims to correct? I can only guess at his thought process, but here are a few possibilities:
Documents from a recent public records request indicate that KCSO changed the meeting date/time of the ICE KCSO 287(g) Steering Committee meeting on June 21, 2018, but the public announcement listed the incorrect time for five days.
On June 21, Captain Terry Wilshire (KCSO) emailed Elvira Acuna (ICE) to confirm the rescheduled joint ICE-KCSO Steering Committee meeting for July 11, 8:30 am. (You can read about the other changes to the date/time of the Steering Committee meeting here.)
Here are some updates on two pieces of bad legislation that were recently passed into law in Tennessee, and that may impact immigrant communities in Knoxville and around the state.
The anti-sanctuary law, HB 2315, prohibits state and local governments and entities from enacting any type of sanctuary policy, which include policies that limit cooperation between local police and ICE, that prevent police from asking about immigration status, and that prevent local police from detaining people for ICE.
The bill originally required TN law enforcement agencies to enter into 287(g) agreements, but this part was amended before it passed into law. Police may enter into 287(g) agreements, but they are no longer compelled to do so (basically, nothing here has changed, and Knox County continues to be the only place in TN with a 287(g) agreement). Continue reading Local impact of new Tennessee laws→