Will an arcane legal challenge bring down Nashville's controversial 287(g) program? 

ICE Hazard

ICE Hazard

Daniel Renteria-Villegas does not seem like an ideal poster child for a social-justice challenge. But he may become one. On Aug. 14, 2010, a Metro K-9 officer claimed he heard shots coming from a 1995 red Honda Passport, parked out in front of the club El Coyote on Glenrose. The SUV sped off, and a pursuit began — a short pursuit. About half a mile down the road, the vehicle slammed into a railroad-crossing pole.

Several people sprinted from the wrecked SUV. But one was quickly brought down, hard, by the K-9. After being treated for dog bites, Renteria, 19, was booked on two misdemeanor charges: suspicion of evading arrest, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor for the 17-year-old girl in the car. He later bonded out, but a couple of days later, Metro Police showed up at his house with an arrest warrant for the alleged shots fired. He was booked Aug. 22 on an aggravated assault charge.

But that would be the least of his troubles.

Almost immediately, Renteria was marked for what is commonly known as an "ICE hold." That's a detainment by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. In Renteria's case, it meant he was suspected of being an undocumented immigrant — grounds for deportation.

But ICE agents weren't the ones who zeroed in on him. Instead, the officers who fingered Renteria worked for the Davidson County Sheriff's Office, the entity that operates our local jails.

Under the controversial program called 287(g) — an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security and ICE — Sheriff Daron Hall's ICE-designated deputies can screen anyone who enters the jail for immigration violations. The deputies can file a recommendation to make any suspected illegals appear before an immigration judge, which an ICE supervisor then signs off on.

At root, it's a recommendation to deport. ICE can detain any suspect until his immigration hearing, if it so chooses. It also essentially serves as a force multiplier for ICE — more boots on the ground, at a fraction of the price. So the system works, right? This Renteria sounds like a troublemaker. If he's in this country illegally, why, boot him right back to where he came from.

Except that "where he came from," for Renteria, is the city of Portland, Ore. Daniel Renteria-Villegas is a United States citizen. Yet when Metro Police Officer Rickey Bearden took down his information in the arrest report, he listed Renteria's place of birth, for some reason, as Mexico.

Daniel Renteria-Villegas speaks poor English and has brown skin. Combined with the birthplace error, that was enough to make a fully legal American citizen a suspected undocumented immigrant on track for a deportation recommendation. It didn't seem to matter that he had a Tennessee Identification Card, which requires proof of citizenship or lawful immigration status. Nor did it make much difference when he recited his Social Security number for the 287(g) officer and it came back valid. Or that he could name the Portland hospital where he was born.

A judge would later dismiss Renteria's aggravated assault charge on Sept. 3 for lack of probable cause. As it turned out, he hadn't fired the shots. But his inmate log indicates that even after he was cleared, the ICE hold remained against him for nine more hours. Three hours after that, he was released.

By that time, for a dismissed charge, Daniel Renteria-Villegas had spent almost two weeks in jail.

Those last nine hours, though, could be the downfall of 287(g), a program that has brought harsh rebukes from critics while bringing Sheriff Hall the approval of conservatives and anti-immigrant factions. As a result of his experience, Renteria is now plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Jan. 7 in Chancery Court by immigration attorney Elliott Ozment. While Ozment declined to comment on pending litigation, the suit draws a clear bead on the sheriff's pet program.

Naming Bearden, Hall and Metro Nashville government as defendants, the suit contends Renteria was wrongfully detained even after he'd proven his citizenship beyond a shadow of doubt. It suggests the case raises grave questions about Sheriff Hall's oft-repeated contention that his department's 287(g) program is all but incapable of racial profiling.

But that's not the facet of the suit that has the program's foes and legal observers intrigued. In an inspired tactical gambit, Ozment asserts that by screening for undocumented immigrants, Hall's 287(g) program violates local, state and federal law. It does so, he challenges, not by lofty indignities to human rights, but by exceeding the powers delegated to Hall's office by the musty old Metropolitan Charter of Nashville and Davidson County.

What sounds like a mundane argument could be a deathblow in disguise. And it opens doubts about the application, as well as the motivations, of a program that has roused a wildfire of debate.

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