Several immigrant-advocacy groups have now responded to a pointed statement from Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones Wednesday morning, vowing to enforce federal immigration laws.
"We feel disappointed of his poor choice of words," said Kukuly Uriarte, an immigrant living in Knoxville and advocate for immigration reform.
After a year of limited statements about 287(g), Sheriff Jones published his opinion on his website Wednesday morning. The note followed a decision from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, which did not approve the county's application for the program. ICE cited "resource concerns," including the sequester, as the reason for denying Knox County's application.
"Once again, the federal government has used sequestration as a smokescreen to shirk its responsibilities for providing safety and security to its citizens by denying Knox County the 287(g) corrections model," the sheriff wrote on his website.
"An inept administration is clearing the way for law breaking illegal immigrants to continue to thrive in our community and ultimately be allowed to reside in the United States. Hopefully, the denial of this program will not create an influx of illegal immigrants who think that without this program they will be able to break the law and then be less likely to be deported.
"The vast majority of Knox County citizens feel just as I do when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration. I strongly support the 287(g) program and will continue to make every effort to pursue its implementation. I 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."
A spokesman for ICE declined to comment on Sheriff Jones' statement.
However, the lawman's words prompted a response from local immigrants and advocacy groups in East Tennessee.
"We believe it's even inhumane, what he said about piling immigrants up in jail as cordwood," Uriarte explained. "Piling people up in jail does not give a pretty picture."
Uriarte said, before the sheriff's comments Wednesday, community members who were opposed to 287(g) were looking forward to repairing the strained relationship with his office.
"With this outburst, he is hurting the trust of our community, the Latino community."
"At first glance, it's a very unfortunate statement," said Reverend John Gill, the senior pastor at Church of the Savior, UCC.
"He takes an issue that, for us, is a very human issue and moral issue- of recognizing our neighbors as fellow children of God, and turns it into what appears to be a political issue for him."
Gill's church joined more than 20 other congregations sent a letter to Sheriff Jones, marking their support for ICE's decision not to approve 287(g) in Knox County. The group represents Interfaith Worker Justice of East Tennessee.
"We see these kinds of policies as very divisive in our community, and marginalizing an important population in our community," Gill said. "Our neighbors, documented or not -- and we feel 287(g) unfairly targets them."
Other organizations also applauded ICE's decision in various emailed statements, including the ACLU of Tennessee and the Allies of Knoxville's Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN).