There we stood, just a group of Knoxvillians rolling into the July 4th weekend. It’s June 30th at 9:30 am. Rain patters and dampens the Scruffy City. We stand across the street from the City County Building in the thick ambiance of Knoxville. Trains whistle forlorn on a gray morning, cars and city trucks hustle and bustle about while church bells chime in the background. There are 18 of us from all different walks of life. We stand in an inter-generational meeting, some of us people of faith, university professors, community college professors, Knox County school teachers, retirees, lawyers, laborers and even a young one donning a “Change the World” t-shirt. We have gathered on this humid and weepy morning out of collective concern for our great city and neighbors.
The concern? Well, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently approved Knox County’s involvement in the 287(g) program. Term limited Knox County Sheriff JJ Jones looked for participation in this program with no input from the public and has yet to make a statement regarding the effects this new government authority will have on our neighborhoods. In fact, he simply refuses to publicly acknowledge Knox County’s approval for 287 (g). The sheriff claims he needs more details before he is prepared to talk to all of his constituents and local media about it. Perhaps one shouldn’t hold so much ignorance when inviting the long arm of the state into Knoxville? I digress.
As reported in the Knoxville News Sentinel, 287 (g) will deputize local law enforcement officials to act on behalf of federal immigration authorities in exchange for federal training of local officers and funding to the Sheriff’s department. The long shadow of Washington now lays over our town and only our town. Knox County is the sole jurisdiction in the state participating in this federal government program.
Huddled in a tight circle a number of us discuss our different concerns regarding the bill. It is an expensive big government program that will lead to big government waste of local dollars. The program invites federal law into local policing, making it harder for everyday Knoxvillians to shape law and policy. It jails suspected immigrants for minor charges, like a busted headlight, thus perpetuating institutional racism. The program often leads to indiscriminate deportation of people who pose no threat to community safety. 287 (g) encourages racial profiling, another form of institutional racism, that in turn erodes trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement. Worst of all, 287 (g) falsely portrays the entire undocumented community as a danger to society.Our communities will become less vibrant. We will lose an incredible amount of knowledge, labor, culture and human potential.
Well, time to cross the street to speak with our elected official. Each of us enter the City County Building, remove the contents of our pockets and walk through the police scanner. Some of us have further scanning to go through, pesky belts and steel toed boots always set those buzzers off. One by one we go through and congregate with one another on the back wall to stay out of the way of folks carrying on with their daily duties. Once through, we are ready to migrate toward the office, but instead standing in front of us is an armed Lieutenant of the law. Standing casually behind him are two other armed officials, one in the normal regalia of law enforcement and the other in a suit. A quick scan of the area actually notes eight officers standing all around us. We will not be meeting with the Sheriff or any members of his staff today.
The Lieutenant is nice, if not a bit timorous, and asks if he can take a message. Meghan Conley, who works closely with Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN), steps up to schedule a meeting with the Sheriff or at least a member of his administrative staff. The Lieutenant tells her that the Sheriff and key members of his administration are absent from the building. Meghan then asks why we cannot proceed, odd to be stopped in the lobby. In the past Meghan and others could at least get to the front desk to leave messages. The officer informs her that because there are so many of us we would be restricted to the lobby. Still odd. There are 18 of us, in the past 25 people entered the office. He again asks for a message – well, how about 18?
We are handed memo paper and fish for pens and pencils. Each of us write our individual concerns in a note for the sheriff. I over hear Meghan inquire about the acceptance of Knox County into the 287 (g) program. The Lieutenant with a chuckle responds, “Ma’am, you probably know more about the program than any of us.” Imagine that. Not only is the public at large in the dark over the effects of the program, but the officers seem to be as well. The lack of transparency is staggering. Not only is Sheriff Jones remaining silent, his deputies are in the dark while his office stops concerned citizens in the lobby with law enforcement. So much for reasonable governance.
When finished writing our concerns we thank the officers, who in turn thank us back and we exit the building. Law enforcement does not leave the hallway until we have all exited the building.
As the Independence weekend rolls on and out this experience brought me pause. The nation celebrates the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, the inalienable rights of the constitution, the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The central holiday of the summer revolves around the revolutionary principle of human liberty.
A society rooted in liberty would be free from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life. Increasingly in this country we see that we do live with and enjoy degrees of freedom, but that said freedom is not absolute. As the years roll on, more and more, we are confronted with the fact that there currently exist aggressive barriers to achieving a free society and that said barriers are institutionalized, protected and upheld by over reaching government power. On this July the Fourth weekend it is important to remember that human liberty is an incredibly important ideal and it will not be maximized by ICE agents in our neighborhoods. It is important to remember that legality and justice are not identical, that patriotism is not allegiance to government or obedience to law, but rather defending and advocating moral positions even in spite of law.
John Adams believed Independence Day would become a great anniversary festival. He was right. On the fourth folks celebrate with pomp parades, sports and games, the cracking of rifles, the blaze of bonfires and the pop, flash and fizzle of fireworks. It is a fun day, a great day — full of cheer and a collective expression of solidarity. It’s a day we celebrate independence and human liberty. This past holiday I was troubled. I hope we can come together, differences aside, and really think about what it means to live in liberty. Does 287 (g) represents the ethic? Should a concerned group of peaceful citizens be ignored and denied the right to sit at an elected officials table?