After navigating the court system for roughly a year and a half, the Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon heard arguments in a lawsuit targeting the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office’s participation in the federal 287(g) immigration enforcement program.
The main issue revolves around DCSO’s memorandum of agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which allows sheriff employees to double as federal agents. The agreement allows the DCSO to hand over illegal immigrants to ICE for possible deportation.
The plaintiffs argue that the sheriff’s office is overstepping their role solely as jail operators by contracting with ICE, a law enforcement agency.
Tennessee’s five Supreme Court justices interjected questions during each side’s 30-minute arguments inside a packed courtroom.
Attorney Bill Harbison, representing the plaintiffs, based his argument on the Metro Charter, which calls the Metro Nashville Police Department the sole “conservator of peace.” The charter, established in 1963, states that the DCSO is specifically the operator of the jail.
DCSO does have rights to conduct police-like duties, Harbison said, as long as it is “necessary and incidental” to the operation of the jail. Harbison compared the sheriff’s office checking and enforcing for immigration status to inquiring about inmates’ federal tax status — a move he said would surely be outlawed by the Metro Charter.
Metro attorney Keli Oliver countered Harbison’s argument by claiming that the immigration status of inmates is directly related to the operation of the jail. She compared the immigration check to checking if an inmate has a warrant out in another jurisdiction.
The DCSO agrees that the charter prevents them from enforcing state and local laws, Oliver said, but it doesn’t address or prohibit enforcement of federal law. The sheriff’s office employees who are trained as federal agents also only operate within the confines of the jail, meaning they don’t infringe upon MNPD’s duty, Oliver said.
During rebuttal, Harbison called the contract between DCSO and ICE a “while we’re at it” policy that, despite Metro Council approval, is unenforceable. He said the Metro charter, which can only be changed by a citywide referendum, should serve as the integral piece of evidence.
“People adopted this process and placed those powers where they want them to be,” Harbison said. A ruling that allowed Metro agencies to work around the charter with federal agencies could create a “slippery slope” effect, according to Harbison.
Earlier in the day, the Migrant Women’s Committee, opposers of 287(g), gathered at the Downtown Presbyterian Church to rally before the hearings. Juana Villegas, who gained notoriety for being shackled by DCSO while in labor four years ago, spoke at the meeting. She said she was treated “as if I were not a human being.”
Protesters marched to the Tennessee Supreme Court building for the hearings.