Advocacy group asks feds to end Knox County immigration enforcement program

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A local immigrants rights advocacy group is urging the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to end an agreement allowing the Knox County Sheriff’s Office to detain immigrants, claiming the agreement was entered in violation of state and local law.

Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN) sent a 10-page letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asking him to end the agreement between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and KCSO relating to the sheriff’s office’s participation in the 287(g) program, which allows deputies to take on some of the functions of immigration agents.

AKIN contends that the 287(g) agreement is not valid and KCSO lacks authority to enforce federal immigration laws, making prior and current immigration detentions civil rights violations. The letter states the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has received over $100,000 from ICE as of 2020 from their participation in the program.

The group says the sheriff’s office violated the Knox County Charter by failing to seek approval for the contract from the Knox County Commission. The charter requires any contracts worth over $50,000 to receive approval from the commission.

They also claim the agreement was entered in violation of two state statutes. TCA section 50-1-101(a), which took effect in 2008, states a sheriff must seek approval from the county governing legislative body before entering a written agreement with DHS or ICE concerning the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

TCA section 7-68-105(c) states that a law enforcement agency should submit written notice to the governor and lieutenant governor when entering an agreement relating to the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

AKIN says that failing to seek approval from the Knox County Commission and failing to notify the state of the agreement results in a violation of federal law, which states local law enforcement agencies must act in a manner ‘consistent with State and local law’ with respects to 287(g) enforcement.

In a 2021 memo sent to the County Commission by Knox County Law Director David Buuck, he says the 2018 state statute only requiring notification of state officials supersedes the 2008 statute that requires approval from the county legislative body. The memo also says that federal immigration law preempts the Knox County charter requiring approval of the contract under the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

The sheriff’s office has claimed they sent proper notifications to the state, while AKIN said they did not do so until April 2021, after the agreement had been entered and renewed. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office has also argued they were not required to seek approval from the county commission because their 287(g) agreement is limited to “jail enforcement” and therefore does not involve the enforcement of federal immigration law despite the agreement authorizing performance of ‘certain immigration enforcement functions.’

AKIN also argues the agreement should be terminated because of harm inflicted on the local community through targeting people with low-level offenses and traffic violations, a history of poor jail conditions in the county and a lack of public transparency regarding its enforcement.

In December 2020, University of Tennessee professor and AKIN Co-Chair Megan Conley was awarded $78,000 dollars in attorney’s fees and other expenses after a court found the Knox County Sheriff’s Office had violated the public records law by denying Conley access to arrest records and emails relating to the 287(g) program.

KCSO was advised by the Department of Homeland Security that the program may be under review and to ‘slow down’ 287(g) procedures after President Joe Biden signed an executive order to revise the “civil immigration enforcement policies and priorities,” of law enforcement agencies across the country

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office first applied for 287(g) participation in 2009 under Sheriff Jimmy ‘J.J.’ Jones but was rejected by ICE in 2013, citing resource concerns. Jones drew criticism from immigrants rights groups and national media attention for his comments following the denial when he stated,” I will continue to enforce these federal immigration violations with or without the help of [ICE]. … If need be, I will stack these violators like cordwood in the Knox County Jail until the appropriate federal agency responds.”

The sheriff’s office reapplied for the program and was approved by ICE in 2017. The program was renewed by Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler in 2019 and 2020.

A request for comment from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office was not immediately returned.

This is a developing story. Download the WATE 6 News app for updates sent to your phone.

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