Students for Migrant Justice is a relatively new organization on campus that is fighting an old fight. Co-founders Luis Mata and Taylor Dempsey began the organization in early 2020 after recognizing the need for a bridge between the university and the migrant community in Knoxville.

Their mission — to educate the UTK campus and Knoxville community on the immigration system, mobilize with partners on and off-campus and build strength amongst student immigrants on and off campus — could not be more relevant in Knoxville today.

Since 2017, the Knox County Sheriff's Office has participated in agreement 287(g). This is an agreement with ICE that deputizes local law enforcement as immigration agents.

Knox is one of two Tennessee counties participating in 287(g), the other being Greene County. There are only 25 participating counties nationwide.

“287(g) incentivizes racial discrimination, exacerbates fear between our migrant community and law enforcement, and separates families due to nonviolent offenses,” Mata and Dempsey said.

On Aug. 19, Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler issued a public statement in response to several anti-287(g) protests that have taken place at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, in addition to Spangler’s home and place of worship.

After telling a brief story of a family that tragically lost their son at the hands of someone who had entered America undocumented, he made his decision on the agreement clear.

“I have deliberated and decided that not only will I not rescind the current contract with 287(g), but I will sign the contract each time it comes up as long as I am sheriff of Knox County, in furtherance of my duly sworn responsibility to protect the citizens of Knox County,” Spangler said in the statement.

Students for Migrant Justice’s response via an Instagram post on Aug. 27 took a strong stance against Spangler’s statement, claiming he “continued false narratives and inaccurate information” in pursuit of fear and control. They went on to explain that over half of 287(g) detentions in Knox County are not related to violent crimes like those Spangler cites in his response, but rather traffic violations.

“Once someone is convicted — not charged — on a local offense, they are taken without notice, ripped from their families, communities and homes and are put into the deportation pipeline,” the SMJ statement said.

SMJ went on to acknowledge the relationship between 287(g) and police abolition, a political vision that is gaining steam in response to the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We will come together to reimagine a future where resources go directly to the people and to community centers, and not spent on police patrols and policies that ultimately harm Knoxville and Knox County,” the statement said.

Additionally, Mata and Dempsey explained that detention beds are another local threat to migrant justice.

“The deportation machine is alive and well here in the Knoxville community. Immigration enforcement policies are terrorizing our communities. Not only do we have the 287(g) program in Knox County, but we also have the detention bed Intergovernmental Service Agreement, or IGSA, as well,” Mata and Dempsey said. “The detention bed IGSA is a contract where ICE pays Knox County to hold ICE detainees in the jail, where they are usually transferred to Louisiana for deportation. This creates a monetary incentive for racial discrimination in our community.”

In addition to the above mentioned policies, SMJ also works to inform students and the Knoxville community about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The Department of Homeland Security memorandum is a temporary relief from deportation for people who were brought to the United States as children without documentation. Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to pause and rescind DACA, this June the Supreme Court decided to reinstate the policy back to its original 2012 form.

Ten days after the court’s decision, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memorandum under the direction of Acting Secretary Chad Wolf that goes against the SCOTUS decision and places more restrictions on those who are receiving or may receive DACA.

“Our organization decries and stands against Chad Wolf and the Trump administration’s cruel memorandum,” Mata and Dempsey said.

In response to how a student can help progress immigration reform, Mata and Dempsey say the best way a student can be an advocate for migrant justice is to support people of color and their voices.

“Advocacy has many iterations, and there are plenty of avenues to do so here in the Knoxville community, and SMJ is here to help create that bridge,” Mata and Dempsey.

Though this semester is looking very different than most, SMJ is still committed to pursuing its mission. Mata and Dempsey encourage all to follow SMJ on Instagram and Twitter, @UTK_SMJ. 

This article has been updated to include additional information.

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