Daniel Renteria-Villegas — born at St. Vincent's Hospital in Portland, Ore.; son of Mexican-born parents; native Spanish-speaker whose broken English doesn't change his valid Social Security number — was arrested at his home Aug. 22 for aggravated assault. The charge stemmed from a brief police chase eight days before, in which Renteria fled a Metro officer who claimed he'd heard shots coming from the red Honda Passport that Renteria was driving. After the chase, Renteria was booked on a pair of misdemeanors and, a few days later, bonded out.
But when an officer showed up at Renteria's door that afternoon late in August and cuffed him for allegedly firing the shots that initiated the car chase, a legal and ethical drama about how Nashville treats its immigrant (and suspected immigrant) population — some U.S. citizens, others not — began to unfold. The end could come with a halt of the controversial 287(g) immigration program, a pet project of Sheriff Daron Hall that partners local officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to tab arrestees who might be in the country illegally.
If only Metro attorneys would stop throwing every bit of legal minutiae they can find at the judge.
Thirty minutes after Renteria's booking, an official with the Davidson County Sheriff's Office — custodian of the jails — placed him under an "ICE hold," the 48-hour period during which a DCSO officer can investigate anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Renteria spent weeks in jail while a General Sessions court considered and then dropped the aggravated assault charge.
Even after the charge was dropped, though, according to a lawsuit filed by attorney Elliott Ozment on Jan. 7, the sheriff's office kept him under the ICE hold for an additional nine hours — despite Renteria's Tennessee-issued identification card, Social Security number and the fact of his U.S. birth. DCSO kept the hold on Renteria until his relatives showed up with a birth certificate and passport. It took another three hours for him to actually get out of jail.
The suit filed by Ozment asks for a temporary injunction while the case is decided. That's typical for a matter in which significant personal harm, such as deportation, could come as a result of the program in question.
"Something like this, where you're being subjected to interrogation and where the consequence of that could result in something like deportation, it's clearly a candidate for that kind of motion," says David Esquivel, an attorney at Bass, Berry & Sims who is familiar with the case.
Rather than answer the stinging claims in the suit so that a judge could make that call, however, Metro attorneys began a game of legal tetherball that has stretched more than six months, leaving a program that could be terminally flawed to instead run unabated. Meanwhile, another 585 people have been moved into deportation proceedings that the court could ultimately deem to be illegal. And if the city's most recent maneuver suggests just how badly it wants to avoid answering the claims made in the lawsuit, it had better prepare to duck.
Ozment filed suit in Chancery Court on Jan. 7, alleging in a clever bit of strategy that the Davidson County Sheriff's Office is overreaching its authority by performing what amounts to law enforcement duties via the 287(g) program. The 1963 Metro Charter, which combined the former city and county governments, assigns policing duties solely to the police department. It leaves the sheriff with the lone responsibility of managing the jails.
In the suit, Ozment and the plaintiffs seek to shutter the local 287(g) program because, they argue, it has little to do with jailing and more to do with old-fashioned police work.
That seems cut and dried. According to the 2009 Memorandum of Agreement between the sheriff's office and ICE, officers trained for 287(g) are given investigatory powers, as well as "the authority to administer oaths and to take and consider evidence." They can serve warrants on immigration matters and issue ICE holds. In fact, in a deposition for another immigration case, Hall characterized the work as "just like a police department. ... We're doing the grunt work of the case, and we're turning in what we have on the individual [to ICE]."
The suit also alleges that Hall's program isn't running the way the federal government intends. The very first section of the 2009 MOA states that the purpose of the program is to tab for deportation "criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety or a danger to the community." What follows is a three-tiered system of offenses initiated by the Obama administration as a way to refocus 287(g) on the most savage criminals prowling Nashville's streets.
The sheriff's office didn't do that — didn't even try, according to Hall. A July 2010 email from an official at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, tagged Davidson County as one of nine 287(g) programs whose Level 3 offenses totaled more than their Level 1 and 2 offenses combined. (Levels 1 and 2 include murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, kidnapping, major and minor drug offenses, burglary, and so on.)
In other words, the sheriff's office didn't give a damn what the feds said about priorities — it was ready to flag for deportation whoever came through the jail's doors without papers, low-level criminal or not. And although it seems counterintuitive (to be generous), Hall says his office hasn't changed the way it operates because, according to his interpretation of the MOA, he doesn't have to.
"The MOA does not talk about prioritization of who we screen," Hall says, playing a rhetorical game he's played with other local media. "It's not at all talking about that. What it's talking about are the priorities of the federal government, and what they're going to do once they're identified, their prioritization of who to remove."
The numbers suggest Hall's program hasn't changed. According to a June 6 report detailing the jail's average daily inmate population, there are two people in jail on ICE detainers every day and 20 in DHS/ICE custody. Those figures are just about the same as they were a year ago. From the start of the program until last week, 8,835 people have been processed for removal, according to figures provided by DCSO. Figures for the first half of this year are consistent with averages for the past couple years that Hall gave the Scene.
That, to Ozment, is a fundamental problem. It's at the core of his lawsuit.
"I see no example of where the sheriff's office or ICE is doing anything to bring this program into compliance with the stated goals of the 287(g) program," he says.
Of course, Metro has yet to respond to any of this, instead continuing a procedural game that's beginning to look absurd. While Ozment initially sought to keep the suit a local matter in court, Metro attorneys argued ICE and the federal government should be party because of their proximity to the program. But because federal law states that 287(g) cannot run afoul of state or local laws, the feds wanted this case decided in state court, and they'd just follow the judge's decision.
Still, the Chancery Court agreed with Metro and shipped the case up the line. It landed before newly minted U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp, who was confirmed to the bench May 2. So that it could remain there and not bounce endlessly back and forth from the state, Ozment had to amend the initial suit to bring a complaint against ICE and the federal government. He also added a plaintiff. Sharp allowed him to do both.
Metro disagrees with that decision so vehemently that last week it filed an interlocutory appeal, often regarded as a rebuke to a new judge. An unusual legal maneuver, it essentially asks the judge to acknowledge he made such a debatable decision that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals should take a look — something that could delay the case as long as a year. The city's current take is that Sharp shouldn't have allowed the amended complaint to move forward in federal court, even though it argued that was the proper venue to begin with.
Confused? Esquivel offers a shorter version.
"I think that the procedural motions that were filed in state court," he says, "and now the variety of procedural motions that are being filed, all try to keep the court from getting to a straightforward motion for preliminary injunction."
Stephen Fotopolous, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, says he's confident the court will block the 287(g) program — at some point. But there's a broader issue.
"The treatment of Renteria himself demonstrates the real danger of having our sheriff's deputies dress up as federal immigration agents," he says. "A U.S. citizen was interrogated and detained for weeks simply because he looked and sounded foreign-born. It's not just illegal. It violates basic American principles of fairness."
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