August 28, 2013

CONTACT: Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee, (615) 320-7142

KNOXVILLE, TN – The ACLU of Tennessee and the national ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project today sent a letter to Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones stating that he does not have the authority to independently enforce federal immigration law, and if he or his deputies detain individuals solely on the basis of their immigration status, they risk being subject to liability for constitutional violations.

The letter was sent in response to Sheriff Jones’ statement following the federal government’s denial of his 287(g) program application. Jones stated he “will continue to enforce these federal immigration violations with or without the help of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If need be, I will stack these violators like cordwood in the Knox County Jail until the appropriate federal agency responds.”

“Sheriff Jones’ vitriolic statement undermines Tennesseans’ values of fairness and equality,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “Sheriff Jones’ primary responsibility is protecting all Knox County residents. However, his assertion that he intends to divert precious law enforcement resources toward an unauthorized pursuit of false threats only damages public safety by eroding the trust and cooperation of immigrant communities.”

Citing a recent United States Supreme Court ruling, the ACLU letter states “Knox Country Sheriff’s Department does not have the authority to independently enforce federal immigration law, and any ‘unilateral state action to detain’ individuals on the basis of their immigration status taken by your Department would be unconstitutional.” The ACLU letter warns Jones that he cannot hold individuals beyond the time they are entitled to be released and “acting upon statements would violate well-established law and would subject the County, as well as you and your deputies personally, to liability for constitutional violations.”

The ACLU urges the sheriff to “correct your statement both publicly to ensure public trust in your Department continues and internally to inform your Deputies of the limitations on their authority to hold individuals.”

“Studies have shown that when local agencies take immigration enforcement into their own hands, it often leads to racial profiling and unlawful detentions based on a person's perceived immigration status,” said Andre Segura, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project staff attorney. “If Sheriff Jones acts on his statements and holds individuals in custody without any lawful justification, as he has asserted he will, he risks subjecting his department to liability. We will continue to monitor the Sheriff’s actions to ensure people’s basic rights are protected.”

A copy of the ACLU’s letter to Sheriff Jones can be found here.

More information on the impact of 287(g) programs on local communities can be found in the ACLU-TN report Consequences and Costs: Lessons Learned from Davidson County, Tennessee’s Jail Model 287(g) Program.