Tennessee Sheriff’s Flawed Program Must End

The Southern Poverty Law Center and our allies asked a federal judge Friday to stop the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in Nashville, Tenn., from overstepping its authority by enforcing federal immigration law.

We filed a motion for summary judgment because the sheriff’s office simply does not have the right to enforce immigration law. But since 2007, deputies have been interrogating detainees about their immigration status and recommending their deportation to federal agents.

It’s astounding for an agency that only has two duties to perform by law: ensuring the safety and security of county jail inmates and serving all civil process. Under the metro government’s charter, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department is the primary law enforcement agency – not the sheriff’s office.

But that hasn’t stopped the sheriff’s office from participating in the federal government’s 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to investigate potential immigration violations. By becoming immigration agents, the sheriff’s office has clearly violated the metro charter.

It also means this program must end. A Congressional mandate bars U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from creating 287(g) programs in communities where the program would violate state and local laws. 

We believe our motion will end this flawed program at the sheriff’s office. Unfortunately, for many towns and cities, these 287(g) programs continue with no end in sight, wreaking havoc, separating families and undermining public safety.

In our 2009 report, Under Siege, the SPLC found that many law enforcement agencies in the South, once armed with these 287(g) agreements, began enforcing immigration law in ways that resulted in accusations of racial profiling and made it more difficult for Latino crime victims and witnesses to cooperate with police.

Consider the changes that Baltazar, a Latino immigrant, encountered once the sheriff’s department in Charlotte, N.C., began enforcing immigration law.

“When the police started acting as immigration agents, immediately they started having roadblocks – roadblocks on the main streets,” he told the SPLC for the report. “The police get carried away by the color of the skin without knowing whether you are a citizen or if you are an immigrant.”

Both documented and undocumented immigrants, as well as Latino U.S. citizens, told the SPLC that the program made them fearful of the police and reluctant to call them for help.

  • In Nashville – the city where we’ve filed this motion – 73 percent of Latinos surveyed for the report said they are more reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement because of the 287(g) program.
  • In Charlotte, 66 percent of Latinos surveyed said the 287(g) program there affected their willingness to speak with the police.

Undermining the public’s trust in law enforcement does not make a community safer. But 287(g) frequently encourages distrust of the police. And criminals, hungry for victims who will keep quiet, too often target immigrant communities reluctant to call the police.

It’s a dismaying picture of a program subverted beyond recognition. That is why the Obama Administration must end this failed program. It has strayed far beyond its original purpose and goals.

The 287(g) program was designed to identify and remove undocumented immigrants who are a danger to the community. But when a 2010 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general looked at a sampling of cases from four sites (280 cases), it found only 9 percent (26 immigrants) involved serious and violent crimes that are the highest priority for ICE.

In Nashville, when the SPLC looked at the sheriff’s office’s statistics, it found approximately 80 percent of the 3,000 individuals deported in the first year of its 287(g) program were arrested on misdemeanor offenses or lesser charges.

Those figures shouldn’t be surprising. More than half of the 287(g) partnerships in this country were created in mid-2007 or later – about the same time immigration reform failed in Congress. Communities are looking for ways to address their concerns about immigration. But the 287(g) program is not immigration reform. It was never intended to be immigration reform. It’s a false solution that undermines trust in law enforcement and leaves communities vulnerable to crime.

Our efforts and those of our allies, Elliott Ozment of Nashville and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, can end 287(g) in Nashville, but for too many communities there is little hope the damage being inflicted by this program will end anytime soon. The federal government must bring this failed program to an end.