‘Unlawful Detention’

knox county detention facility

'Unlawful Detention'

A Honduran immigrant called 911 for help. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office tried to deport her. She is suing for $2.5 million and challenging the county's 287(g) program.

by jesse fox mayshark • November 10, 2021

knox county detention facility

The roger D. Wilson Detention Facility in east Knox County.

At 2:08 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2020, Maira Oviedo-Granados called 911 from her home in the Ellistown Estates subdivision in East Knox County.

The suit seeks class action status on behalf of more than 1,300 immigrant defendants.

Speaking through a Spanish interpreter, the native of Honduras told the dispatcher that she was locked in a bedroom with her three children, who ranged in age from 5 to 13, hiding from her domestic partner. According to a transcript of the call, she said her partner had just beaten up a family friend and had returned home in a violent temper. She added that he was armed with two handguns.

But when Knox County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house not long after, things didn’t go as Oviedo-Granados expected. Rather than arrest her partner, an English-speaking American citizen, the officers — who did not speak Spanish — charged her with simple assault.

Oviedo-Granados has applied for asylum in the United States and has a temporary legal status while she awaits a determination. But less than 12 hours after she was booked into the Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility, she was put into immigration enforcement processing via the county’s 287(g) agreement with the federal government. 

According to a lawsuit filed by Oviedo-Granados on Monday, that set off a chain of events which led to her being taken away from her children and sent to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Louisiana. It took her lawyer, Rachel Bonano, two months to win her release on $5,000 bail.

Her suit, filed in Knox County Circuit Court by Bonano and attorney Andrew Fels, challenges the legality of the county’s 287(g) agreement with ICE and seeks $2.5 million in damages. It also seeks class-action status on behalf of hundreds of other immigrants who have been placed in immigration proceedings through the program since the Knox County Sheriff’s Office signed the agreement in 2017. (You can read the full suit and supporting materials here.)

Fels is involved in another lawsuit about the 287(g) program. He represented University of Tennessee researcher Meghan Conley in her successful public records suit against KCSO for refusing to provide documents and arrest reports related to the program. The county has appealed that ruling.

In a brief statement about the lawsuit, Bonano and Fels said, “No one should be disappeared because they called the police for protection." 

Knox County Law Director David Buuck said his office would not comment on pending litigation.

Question of Authority

Immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility and typically outside the jurisdiction of local law enforcement. But the 287(g) program, created in the 1990s, allows ICE to delegate limited enforcement power to police and sheriff’s departments.

It is not widely used by local agencies, partly because it does not come with added funding. Out of more than 17,000 local police and sheriff’s departments across the country, fewer than 150 participate in 287(g). In Tennessee, there are just two: Greene County and Knox County.

Under the agreement entered into by former Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones in 2017, KCSO officers trained by ICE can initiate deportation proceedings against anyone booked into the county jail who they believe to be in the country illegally.

An investigation earlier this year by Compass and the Knoxville News Sentinel raised questions about the legality of Knox County’s agreement. A state law passed in 2007 requires any such program to be approved by the local legislative body — in this case, Knox County Commission. But Jones never brought the agreement before Commission for a vote. 

Oviedo-Granados’ lawsuit argues that because of that and other failings, Knox County’s agreement was never valid and therefore KCSO has no authority to enforce immigration laws. It also accuses the sheriff’s department of racial discrimination in deliberately pressing minor charges against immigrants like Oviedo-Granados in order to push them into deportation.

It says the KCSO officer who slated Oviedo-Granados for deportation — who also did not speak Spanish — initiated the proceeding “based solely on her belief that Plaintiff had been born outside the United States.”

Sheriff Tom Spangler, who has renewed the 287(g) agreement twice since taking office in 2018, has repeatedly said that his officers do not deliberately look for immigrants to arrest and that 287(g) does not enter the equation until someone has already been charged with a criminal offense.

Officials with KCSO and the Knox County Law Department have offered several different explanations for why they believe the 287(g) program is legal despite the county’s apparent lack of compliance with state law.

Besides not bringing the program to Commission for approval, Spangler failed to notify the governor and Legislature of his renewals of the program, despite a different state law that requires it. Notifications were sent in April of this year only after Compass and the News Sentinel asked about them.

The suit also alleges specific failings in Oviedo-Granados’ case, including the lack of a valid ICE warrant for her detention. And it cites a monetary motive for KCSO to detain immigrants — a separate agreement with ICE reimburses the county for each night an immigrant is held on an ICE detainer in the county jail.

According to KCSO records filed with the lawsuit, the county has received at least $165,570 from ICE for holding immigrants since 2018.

“Defendants’ unlawful detention of suspected undocumented immigrants inflicts serious and continuing violation of those detainees’ civil rights,” the suit says.

Seeking Asylum

According to the lawsuit, Oviedo-Granados came to the U.S. in 2014 seeking asylum from “gender-based violence” in Honduras. In accordance with federal law, she is permitted to remain in the country while her asylum claim is being considered, which because of backlogs can be a lengthy process.

“She has a government-issued Social Security number and work permit in connection with her pending immigration proceeding seeking asylum based on domestic abuse and gender-based violence,” the suit says. “Before her detention, she had owned and operated a legally-licensed cleaning business.”

But she found domestic violence on this side of the border, too. The suit says that the partner she was living with last year, who is the father of her youngest child, repeatedly abused her physically, sexually and emotionally.

The suit alleges that her partner raped and beat her on Oct. 31, 2020, leaving bruises on her thighs that were still visible when deputies responded to her 911 call a week later. On that night, her partner had gone to the home of a male friend of hers with whom he suspected she was having an affair, and badly beat the other man before returning home to confront her. 

Oviedo-Granados is physically small, just 4 feet 10 inches tall. But the deputies who arrived took the word of her English-speaking partner that she had been the aggressor in their confrontation, the suit says, and did not seek a Spanish translator in order to be able to better communicate with her. They also denied her requests to speak to a lawyer, according to the suit.

At the jail, Oviedo-Granados’ charge was upgraded from simple assault — which would have led to a swift release — to domestic assault, which carries a mandatory 12-hour hold. That was enough time for KCSO to begin the deportation proceedings.

When Oviedo-Granados was finally able to return to her children from the ICE detention center in Louisiana two months later, all criminal charges against her were dropped by the district attorney’s office. She still faces a deportation hearing next March, even though people awaiting asylum determination are not supposed to be subject to removal.

Immigrant rights’ advocates led by the local group Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN) have lobbied KCSO for years to end its 287(g) agreement. Conley, the UT researcher studying the program, is a member of the AKIN steering committee and has written op-eds and letters urging the Biden administration to revoke the county’s agreement. 

That has not happened so far, but when President Joe Biden took office earlier this year he instructed ICE to prioritize for deportation only the most violent criminals or those suspected of posing a threat of terrorism. As a result, 287(g) programs have all but halted, because most of the people placed into deportation through them were initially arrested on minor charges.

According to Knox County statistics filed with the lawsuit, 287(g) encounters at the Knox County jail have dropped from about 12 per week in 2020 to zero every week since Biden took office. (There were 46 in January of this year before ICE announced its priority shift.)

But the lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of at least 1,300 detainees processed through the county’s program in the preceding three years. It acknowledges it would be hard to track down most of them, because “[m]any of the Prospective Class Members have already been removed from the United States.”