Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler has long maintained immigrants should not worry their safety is at risk because of his agency's partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but a recent lawsuit filed against the county challenges that claim.
The partnership, commonly referred to as the 287(g) program, deputizes sheriff deputies to implement immigration proceedings of those caught in the county's justice system.
For years, immigrant rights groups have said the program makes immigrant communities less safe because people are far more fearful about calling police in emergency situations. They say those who are here illegally - whether or not they're directly involved with the emergency - could be arrested and forced into deportation proceedings if they call for help.
In a lawsuit, Knox County resident Maira Oviedo-Granados says she dialed 911 while her partner was threatening her and her three children at 2 a.m. on a November 2020 morning. When police arrived, her English-speaking partner, an American citizen, was not arrested. Instead, she was charged with simple assault. The charge was later increased to domestic assault, requiring a 12-hour hold in jail.
More: She called 911 for help. She ended up jailed for months on disputed immigration hold.
More: Knox County's 287(g) program tears families apart. And it might be illegal.
Oviedo-Granados, 30, says she was denied access to an attorney while jailed. She was processed through the 287(g) system and ultimately separated from her three children from the date of the call through early January 2021.
She spent her time mostly inside a detention facility in Louisiana, which caused severe mental trauma, according to the lawsuit. This spring, the Knox County District Attorney General's office dismissed the criminal charges against her.
Both Spangler and Oviedo-Granados, through a spokesperson and attorney, respectively, declined to comment for this story. Knox County Law Director David Buuck did not respond to emailed questions about Oviedo-Granados' lawsuit.
Under the 287(g) program, local law enforcement agencies receive some federal authority to detain immigrants facing federal hearings. The program empowers local law enforcement agencies to initiate immigration proceedings up to and including deportation.
After agreeing to extend the program in 2020, Spangler said only people who break the law should be concerned about the program.
"Don't commit a crime (and) you don't have to worry about us," he said. "We're not knocking on doors, we're not going out here looking for people and I'm not going to go out here to other sites and look for somebody that looks different because they think I'm coming after them because they're here illegally."
'They acted like cowboys'
Oviedo-Granados had at least two factors working against her when she called 911, experts told Knox News.
One, she had experienced recent sexual abuse by her partner, the father of one of her children, according to the lawsuit. Numerous reports, including one by the United Nations, have found an increase in violence toward women during the pandemic as people were was forced to stay in close quarters for months.
Two, she is an immigrant from Honduras who has, according to the lawsuit, been here since 2014. She is awaiting a U.S. immigration judge to hear her asylum claim this spring.
On the night of her alleged assault, her partner had already assaulted a man who he suspected of having an affair with Oviedo-Granados, she said. However, she was afraid to call the police about that assault because of her immigration status, the lawsuit claims.
Muzaffar Chishti is the director of the Migration Policy Institute office at New York University. Women in domestic violence situations are already vulnerable, he said. They often are afraid of calling police on a breadwinner and could be concerned about themselves or a family member being arrested and deported. Sometimes they are the breadwinner and the thought of being separated from their family keeps them from calling police.
Police can only do their jobs well when they have the trust of the community, said Evangeline Chan, an immigration attorney and American Immigration Lawyers Association national spokesperson, and programs like 287(g) erode that trust.
"If the community, which can include noncitizens, feel like local law enforcement are partnering with federal immigration officers they won't feel comfortable calling them when they want to report a crime or when they've been a victim or a witness of a crime," she said. "And when you don't have people feeling comfortable coming forward police can't do their job."
This means perpetrators are free to commit more crime against immigrants, making communities less safe, Chan said.
Oviedo-Granados' story, Chishti said, is not unusual and shows Knox County is acting like it operates under the separate model called the 287(g) warrant service, which is a task force that allows for officers to serve warrants on people accused of illegal immigration. Knox County operates under the jail model, which only allows immigration proceedings to begin once someone has been arrested.
"'We are not going out there,' that's what (the sheriff's) been saying," Chishti said. "'We're not cowboys running around out there looking for illegals.' ... The thing is, the way this worked out, they acted like cowboys. I mean, they essentially used a jail model to act like a task force model."
Another mark against the sheriff's office, Chishti said, was that Oviedo-Granados alleged she was not offered an interpreter, something that gives power to the abusing partner when dealing with officers, he said.
Calling 911 only to be arrested
The lawsuit includes a transcript of Oviedo-Granados' 911 call. In it, an interpreter and a dispatcher talked back and forth with her. She told them her boyfriend had come inside and tried to grab her, but she twisted out of his grasp and ran into a bedroom with her three children and locked the door.
She told dispatchers the man was armed with two pistols. At one point, the dispatcher asked if the yelling in the background was coming from the boyfriend and Oviedo-Granados said it was.
Operator: "Has he hurt any of the children?"
Interpreter on behalf of Oviedo-Granados: "No, not the kids, but he has me. Today he didn't do it because my friend was here, but he always (unintelligible) me."
Operator: "Tell her it's really important that she says that to the officers. They are there to help her. ..."
Later, the operator and dispatcher talked about the situation among themselves. The dispatcher said, "It's good that the officers are there now. Hopefully they arrest that guy."
Instead, she was the one arrested after her English-speaking partner said she struck him in the face multiple times during an argument, according to the lawsuit. In arresting documents police said they saw marks on his face.
Oviedo-Granados is seeking $2.5 million and punitive damages, asserting that her "injuries and civil rights violations inflicted on her are typical of more than 1,000 people" detained under Knox County's "illicit immigration enforcement program."
The lawsuit opens the door to a class-action lawsuit that could seek to punish the county and its leadership for unlawfully participating in the program.
Tennessee law allows local police and sheriff's departments to enter into federal immigration enforcement agreements "upon approval by the governing legislative body." Here that would mean the Knox County Commission. The commission never approved it, Knox News found.
History of nonviolent arrests
Research compiled by University of Tennessee professor Meghan Conley shows about 85% of the 441 people held at the Knox County jail in immigration enforcement actions from September 2017 to May 2020 did not face felony charges. Further, 81% of arrestees detained on behalf of ICE had nonviolent charges. The most common charges for those immigrants were drunken driving (34%), a driver's license infraction (20.8%), public intoxication (10.6%) and misdemeanor assault (9.5%).
The data is the most recent available. The number of immigrants held by the sheriff's office plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, Knox News detailed one of these stories. A Knox County resident that Knox News is only identifying as Omar was driving in West Knoxville when a truck pulling a trailer slid on wet pavement and hit his car, knocking it into a fence and a tree. When emergency crews came, Omar's wife was led to an ambulance. He was led to the county jail for not having a driver's license.
Omar spent a month in detention centers before having to pay a $5,000 bond, an amount that depleted his family's savings account. He has a deportation hearing in Memphis in 2023.
Tyler Whetstone is a Knox News politics reporter focusing on Knoxville and Knox County.
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Lawsuit challenges Knox County sheriff's partnership with ICE