A Knoxville Woman Called 911. Instead of Getting Help, She Was Arrested and Placed in Immigration Detention for Months.

Knox County's program authorizing such enforcement activities may have been instituted illegally.


In November 2020, Maira Oviedo-Granados of Knoxville, Tennessee, called 911 from inside a locked bedroom with her three young children nearby. Her boyfriend came home after beating a man he thought she was having an affair with and she feared for her safety, alleging to a dispatcher that her boyfriend was armed and had tried to grab her.

The police arrived and instead arrested Oviedo-Granados for simple assault, as her boyfriend alleged she had struck him during an argument and officers saw marks on his face. Then, because of Oviedo-Granados' citizenship status, authorities sent her to an immigration detention facility in Louisiana. She was there from November 2020 to early January 2021 and kept apart from her three children, per reporting by Angela Dennis and Tyler Whetstone for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Now, Oviedo-Granados is suing over Knox County's "illicit immigration enforcement" program that landed her in detention for months.

In 2018, Knox County signed a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that allowed its law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Under Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Department of Homeland Security may forge agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies and deputize officers to carry out certain duties typically performed by federal immigration agents. For example, state and local law enforcement officers may begin deportation proceedings and transfer noncitizens to ICE custody.

Oviedo-Granados fell victim to the county's 287(g) program due to her status as an asylum seeker. She arrived in the U.S. in 2014 from Honduras and filed for asylum on the basis of gender-based violence in her home country (a claim that is still pending). Despite calling 911 about a partner she said had hurt her before, Oviedo-Granados was arrested.

Such 287(g) programs are controversial among immigration advocates due to their tendency to target nonthreatening individuals, emboldening officers to arrest migrants over minor, nonviolent offenses. In Gwinnett County, Georgia, almost two-thirds of 287(g) detainees were booked for traffic infractions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee found that "the vast majority of the time, deportations through Davidson County's 287(g) program were triggered by minor, often traffic-related offenses." The county wasted resources to deport low-level offenders over "driving without a license, trespassing, and fishing without a license."

Enforcement has also raised questions about racial profiling in some parts of the country. In Alamance County, North Carolina, "sheriff's deputies set up checkpoints at entrances to Latino neighborhoods" and "Latino drivers were up to 10 times more likely to be stopped than non-Latino drivers," according to the American Immigration Council. Latino drivers were stopped at a similarly disproportionate rate in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies carried out regular "sweeps" in Latino neighborhoods. Federal authorities terminated both counties' 287(g) programs following Department of Justice investigations.

Setting aside these general issues, Knox County's 287(g) program may have also been illegally instituted. Tennessee state code allows local law enforcement agencies to enter federal immigration enforcement agreements "upon approval by the governing legislative body." The Knox County Commission would be the approving body in this case, but former Knox County Sheriff Jimmy Jones didn't get the commission's approval before signing a contract with ICE in 2018.

Jones previously asked ICE to sign a 287(g) agreement with Knox County in 2013, but the agency rejected his request on the basis of budgetary constraints. "I will continue to enforce these federal immigration violations with or without the help" of ICE, Jones said then. "If need be, I will stack these violators like cordwood in the Knox County Jail until the appropriate federal agency responds."

Jones and other local officials have insisted that Knox County's now-active 287(g) program did not need approval from the Knox County Commission. Randy Nichols, who served as special counsel for the Sheriff's Office during Jones' tenure, said the agreement didn't require commission approval because it didn't amount to immigration enforcement. Immigration lawyers interviewed by Whetstone disagree with that claim.

Oviedo-Granados alleges that she was detained without an ICE interview or warrant and was refused access to her attorney or a translator. Her lawsuit further claims that a Knox County General Sessions magistrate ordered her release after 12 hours. The simple assault charges against Oviedo-Granados have been dropped, and she is scheduled to attend immigration court proceedings in the spring as her asylum claim is processed.

Oviedo-Granados' lawsuit notes that the "injuries and civil rights violations inflicted on her are typical of more than 1,000 people" detained under Knox County's 287(g) program. Local law enforcement agencies across the country may make arrests like this under the guise of defending federal immigration law, but that enforcement often comes at the expense of true justice and community trust.