The Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) held a meeting Wednesday to discuss and explain their joint immigration policies in front of dozens of protesters and concerned citizens.

KCSO and ICE are partners as part of ICE’s 287(g) program. This initiative partners ICE with local authorities for training purposes with some deputies to serve as acting ICE agents.

The sheriff’s office says right now there are seven officers trained under 287(g), and six more are scheduled to undergo training.

It was a heated meeting Wednesday morning, one that was scheduled to go for one hour before ballooning to three. 

Dozens of people showed up to protest and ask questions about the county’s 287(g) jurisdiction.

ICE says the program works by giving local authorities the authority access ICE records to see if an individual is subject to immigration enforcement after they have been arrested at the local or state level. ICE then makes the determination whether or not the person will be subject to deportation proceedings.

A federal immigration judge makes all final decisions on who will be deported. 

ICE Spokesperson Bryan Cox was quick to dispel notions of impropriety by ICE or KCSO. 

“Immigration enforcement is a controversial issue. It’s something that people have strong passions about, and we saw that today,” he said. “I think the most important thing for people to understand is that 287(g) is a screening tool. It does not grant any additional arrest authority. It does not result in any person being arrested who would not otherwise be arrested.”

Knox County is the only county in Tennessee to be taking part in program.

“Hatred, fear and mistrust is unsustainable,” one speaker at the meeting said.

Dozens attended the meeting raising their concerns with the program. Many said they are fearing racial profiling.

“It just seems like our country and our county is becoming more racist and I just want us to be a more kind county and not racial profile”, said Knox County resident Leighann Garrett.

The sheriff’s office is fighting those claims by showing statistics for the first 6 months 287(g) has been in effect. Of nearly 12,000 people arrested in the county about three percent of them are foreign nationals, and one third of those were identified as subject to immigration enforcement through 287(g).

“I’m standing here telling you that the things you’re talking about are not happening in Knox County. They may be happening somewhere else, but they’re not happening here, period. I know that,” Sheriff J.J. Jones told the crowd.

Others asked for more transparency. Community members asked the agencies to find ways to work with them to make sure everyone in Knox County feels safe.

“Transparency is truly vital in this. It’s the foundation on which everything else will rest,” said Knox County resident John Stewart.

This is not the first time KCSO has faced backlash for their participation in the program.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a scathing statement when KCSO applied for the program in 2017, saying “The Knox County Sheriff’s Office is unfit for establishment of a voluntary 287(g) program, as clearly demonstrated by the sheriff’s track record of threatening to treat immigrants unfairly and unconstitutionally, as well as the numerous allegations of abuse by his department”, in reference Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones’ 2013 statement when his first 287(g) application was denied, saying he will “stack these violators like cordwood,” when discussing pursuing illegal immigrants.