ICE Meets Fiery Crowd in Knox County, Citizens Push for Transparency

Chris Salvemini
4 min readJul 23, 2018

Knoxville citizens put the heat on ICE officials and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) on Wednesday, July 11.

The tense and passionate meeting was held in the City County Building downtown. Organized by the KCSO and then rescheduled three times, it was originally meant to inform attendees on KCSO’s participation in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) controversial 287(g) program. Knox County is the only Tennessee county to participate in the program.

The meeting was scheduled to end at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday but lasted more than two hours after that, when attendees had to leave the room for another scheduled meeting. ICE officials left at the scheduled time, while the KSCO and Bryon Cox, a federal ICE public affairs officer, stayed after. There was also no agenda provided for the meeting, as is required by the committee’s charter.

The 287(g) program automatically identifies undocumented immigrants after being arrested by KCSO or processed through the KCSO after being arrested by the Knoxville Police Department (KPD). Local police officers are deputized to serve as immigration officers and are given resources and training. After being arrested, immigrants’ deportation statuses are decided by the federal government.

KPD does not have the means to check immigration status and thus does not participate in the program — immigrant status can only be checked after suspects are handed to the KCSO, according to Darrel DeBusk with KPD.

Departments not participating in the 287(g) program do not automatically flag undocumented immigrants and require ICE officials to personally go to detention facilities to determine a person’s immigration status.

The sheriff’s participation in the program officially began last year, after being approved in 2013 but then being told that no funds were available for it after sequestration.

While Sheriff Jimmy Jones publicly stated last year that his office’s participation in the program was an effort to save public dollars by processing undocumented immigrants faster and to reduce overcrowding in prisons, the application that the office submitted claimed the program would be used to combat illegal immigration.

“The purpose of 287(g) is to enhance the safety and security of communities,” Cox said to a laughing crowd during his presentation.

A crowd of demonstrators filed into the City County building, accusing Cox of lying and demanding more transparency from the KCSO and ICE.

The meeting on Wednesday was intended to be a brief presentation on the 287(g) program from Cox, followed by a question and answer session. However, protestors organized beforehand and attended holding signs that decried ICE. A frequently used sign in the meeting urged ICE and the KCSO to “tell the truth,” in reference to abuse reports emerging from detention facilities after the Trump administration started enforcing its zero-tolerance immigration policy.

Sheriff Jones vehemently denied any abuse from his own office during the meeting, after an attendee asked about it.

“Whenever democracies start rounding up immigrants like this, it’s never a good sign,” Chris Irwin, a criminal defense lawyer, said at the podium towards the end of the meeting.

Attendees also called for data on immigrants being detained and processed both by ICE and the KCSO, which was complicated by differing procedures on how each organization handles and collects immigrant information. For example, when attendees asked about high school students arrested and processed through the 287(g) program, they were told it would depend on whether the student was younger than 18 years old since juveniles are processed through juvenile court rather than the KSCO, and so any data the KCSO could provide would be incomplete.

ICE records are similarly complicated by bureaucratic processes, and the organization claims most immigrant information, especially information pertaining to children, must be kept secret for fear of endangering immigrants.

Protestors laughed after Bryon Cox defended his inability to provide data children left home alone after parents were arrested by claiming the organization does not also keep track of a child’s hair color, emphasizing that it is impossible to record every detail of immigrants’ arrests. Demonstrators criticized ICE for choosing to enforce laws, while Cox encouraged people confront legislators if they felt laws should change, claiming ICE was just following orders from lawmakers.

Cox stands between a community member speaking on the KCSO’s participation in the 287(g) Sheriff Jones.

The crowd also asked questions about whether ICE provides support services for families who lose primary caretakers after being deported. Cox claimed that the organization puts families in contact with support services but does not provide support themselves.

Shouts accusing Cox of lying when asked about violations of ICE’s secure space policies, which precludes arrest in churches and schools, rang out an hour and a half into the meeting. When Cox asked people to provide a specific instance of ICE violating its policy, the crowd retorted that they did not want to reveal their community’s illegal immigrants.

Calls to abolish ICE have become hallmarks of protests against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and a recent protest downtown against its zero-tolerance policy gathered around 250 people.

“287(g) is here to stay,” Jones said during the presentation after a tense confrontation with the crowd. The sheriff is term limited, and Tom Spangler has been voted as his replacement.