There’s a new 287(g) advisory council in town.
And if it’s anything like the old one, there’s not much hope that it’ll be effective in constructively addressing problems with the program.
Last week, Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall’s office announced the names of five members to make up the council and held an introductory meeting as a crash course in the complicated, hot-button issue that is 287(g): the federal program that deputizes local law enforcement agencies to screen the immigration status of foreign-born arrestees charged with criminal violations.
A previous advisory council, established before the 287(g) program began in Davidson County and dissolved in June of this year, didn’t end — or even start, really — on a good note.
“I looked back on the decision last time of who to select, and that’s really what I did. … I wanted the most active, loud, vocal [members],” Hall said. “What I discovered was that that activism may not have represented what the community at large — primarily the Hispanic community — was really saying.”
Hall knew what he was inviting into the room when he asked for some the most opinionated voices to be a part the first council. But “it became more about activism than it did about actual facts — I thought — for some of the members, and we weren’t productive.”
Civil attorney Gregg Ramos, one of those vocal members, said the first council amounted to “window dressing.”
“The sheriff wasn’t really interested in anything we had to say, so he handpicked his new advisory council, I suppose so they would be more agreeable to his views and what he thinks should be done,” Ramos said.
Though invited as a member of the first council, Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of Tennessee Immigrant and Refuge Rights Coalition, said he never became a formal adviser because his organization’s board thought that might be seen as a tacit endorsement of 287(g). Fotopulos did, however, attend the meetings and was very much involved in the discussions, something he’s thankful Hall allowed him to do.
“I think it’s fair to say the meetings were unproductive because dissenting opinions and serious concerns were not particularly respected by the sheriff’s office,” Fotopulos said. “As time went on, participation dwindled because it became clear that the sheriff was not open to hearing real criticisms of his program.
“From the beginning, suggestions were made to revise the screening process such that people who were charged with very minor offenses like fishing without a license were not subjected to sort of the additional detention and interrogation of the program,” Fotopulos continued.
The TIRRC reserved two major concerns with 287(g). One was that it would change the way police in the field made arrests — giving them incentive to physically arrest an offender rather than writing a citation.
The organization’s other concern was that if people started seeing their friends and neighbors deported for minor offenses, they would stop cooperating with police.
The concerns were never addressed, Fotopulos said. Meanwhile, Hall peddled 287(g) to the public with what Fotopulos called “glossy reports with pretty pictures and graphs” while “making the claim that it had this effective advisory council made up of community advocates that were monitoring the implementation of the program.”
Echoing Ramos’ sentiment, Fotopulos said members began to feel like “political window dressing.”
In a June 15 email, Hall informed council members he was looking to reconstitute the body. He thanked them for their service, commitment and interest in the council.
Hall’s email stated: “Over the past few months, I have become interested in refreshing the council and would like your help in doing so. I am asking that you recommend anyone you feel would be interested in joining the group and would provide quality input as to the workings of the 287(g) program. It is my hope to take recommendations and form a new council by the fall.”
Recommendations did not come rolling in.
“As for me,” Ramos said, “I’m not going to recommend someone to be part of a council whose recommendations and input are largely unheeded by the sheriff. Why would you do that to anyone you respect?”
But after an article in The Tennessean about the out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new move for the advisory council, Hall’s office received word from around 20 people interested in serving. From that, Hall chose his five new council members: Shayna Abrams, senior counsel for the state attorney general’s office; Joan Barnfield, outreach coordinator of the Environmental Division for the Tennessee Department of Transportation; Juan Canedo, executive director of Progreso Community Center; Dawn Gerhart, managing attorney at the Immigrant Legal Clinic, part of the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence; and Juan Gomez, officer with Metropolitan Nashville Park Police.
Gerhart, one of the two recommendations Hall’s office did receive, wants to ensure 287(g) doesn’t have a negative effect on immigrant communities, especially as it relates to immigrant victims of domestic and sexual violence with whom she works.
Gomez — who is Hispanic and speaks Spanish — deals with the Hispanic community daily both in his personal life and in uniform as an officer with the Metro Park Police. His mother, brother and two sisters are small business owners in the community as well, operating a barbershop with a primarily immigrant customer base.
Gomez and his family are immersed in any potential concerns or fears about the program.
“Keeping that in mind, I wanted to participate in the program and sort of open lines of communication in my capacity as an officer and as a member of the community,” he said.
Canedo co-founded south Nashville’s Progreso Community Center four years ago to support the Hispanic community. It grew in response to such issues as a push to shutter taco trucks. More than 250 members later, Canedo is the executive director.
Focus on dangerous criminals
At the new council’s first meeting — mostly a 287(g) crash course — Canedo said the Hispanic community benefits from and appreciates the weeding out of those dangerous offenders who are processed through 287(g) and who might cast a negative reflection on the Hispanic community at large.
“But on the other hand, we [as the community center] told the sheriff in our interview that we would be telling our community and him the other negative aspects that affect our community” to improve 287(g)’s implementation, Canedo told The City Paper.
One of the big issues that could carry over from the old council was narrowing the scope of criminal charges screened by the 287(g) program. Most of the people getting “caught up” in 287(g) and deported are traffic offenders, Ramos said, not dangerous felons.
“From the very beginning, our attempts were to really try to get the sheriff to focus on dangerous criminals in the community, not on minor traffic offenders,” Ramos said.
But many of those arrested on seemingly harmless charges and then processed through 287(g) may already have had other serious charges, but because they weren’t arrested in a jurisdiction like Nashville, they slipped through the net.
Gerhart and Canedo said the council should look to clearly define what “criminally active” means and sort through conflicting points of view regarding those offenders screened through 287(g) for not having a driver’s license.
Though Ramos and Fotopulos fear this new council will remain impotent — “I don’t have a lot of optimism that it would be productive in any significant way,” Ramos said — the question is what effect fresh faces and different timing will have.
Davidson County was the fourth jurisdiction in the country to enter a 287(g) agreement with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There are now about 72 such agreements in 26 states. Nashville began participating in 287(g) on April 16, 2007, and now more than 7,250 illegal immigrants have been processed for deportation.