Federal Immigration Decision Produces Varying Reactions in Knox County

Aug 22, 2013

Knox County's sheriff is livid. Immigrants' rights advocates are pleased. Two very different reactions generated by one decision.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration law, notified the Knox County Sheriff's Office that it would reject Sheriff J.J. Jones' request to join a controversial program called 287(g). In a letter to Jones, ICE said there wasn't enough money in its budget to expand the program to new jurisdictions. Jones then posted a statement on the county sheriff's website, criticizing the federal government and threatening to stack undocumented immigrants "like cordwood" in the county's jail, "if need be."

Jones' statement went on to say, "I will continue to enforce these federal immigration violations with or without the help of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

Local advocates for undocumented immigrants, however, praised ICE's decision. A statement from Allies of Knoxville's Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN) read in part: "Today, we are celebrating the acknowledgment that Knox County is a diverse and vibrant community. We hope to continue in our unity and strength to make Knox County a more welcoming place for all. [W]e are proud that Knox County will not further contribute to the broken system of mass deportations and family separation."

287(g) allows local law enforcement officials to carry out federal immigration law. Jurisdictions in nineteen states participate in the program, typically by "jail enforcement," or incarcerating people found to be in the United States illegally. Officers are required to undergo a four-week training program in South Carolina. Opponents of 287(g) say it encourages racial profiling, sends more people into already-crowded jails and erodes trust between police officers and the Hispanic community.

Though federal budget constraints mean 287(g) will not expand into new areas in the immediate future, Knox County's sheriff's office will continue to participate in a separate ICE program called Secure Communities. That effort collects fingerprint data from arrestees for comparison to ICE databases of known undocumented immigrants.