Immigration cases increase in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Federal agents are targeting Latino communities and requiring the Shelby County jail to detain people if they’re believed to be in the United States illegally, according to a Memphis-based immigration attorney.

“Anybody’s at risk,” Veronica Cooper, an immigration attorney in Memphis, told FOX13. “Everybody’s at risk.”

President Donald Trump promised his supporters while on the campaign trail, “"We are going to get the bad ones out.”

Cooper said agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), guided by the Trump administration, are targeting innocent Latinos and people arrested for non-violent crimes, such as driving with a suspended license.

“They'll go to a neighborhood, they'll talk to people,” Cooper said, “People they find undocumented, they take them.”

“We’re seeing more of people being picked up from 201 Poplar,” Cooper said, describing an increase in detainments at the Shelby County Jail.

The result is a more crowded Federal Immigration Court in Memphis that was already overwhelmed before Trump took over the White House.

Data show an increase in immigration cases this year in Memphis. Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, compiles data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

The data show an increase in immigration cases in Memphis every year since 2006, but the number is higher than average this year.

Between 2010 and 2016, there was an average annual increase of about 1,000 immigration cases in Memphis. In less than four months in 2017, the number of new cases in Memphis has nearly surpassed the annual average, with 958 new cases.

Federal Immigration Court Judges in Memphis hear cases of families in four states, including Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Kentucky.

“I think it will get worse,” Cooper said. “It’s going to get more crowded.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week the U.S. Department of Justice's plan to add 75 immigration judges to the courts over the next year, to accommodate the increase in cases.

“We're really not enforcing immigration,” Earle Farrell, the spokesperson for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, said. “If we come looking for you, we're looking for you because you broke the law, but not immigration laws.”

Farrell said local law enforcement in Shelby County is leaving immigration enforcement to federal agents, but local law enforcement can be asked to detain inmates suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.

“If ICE gives us a hold on somebody, we put a hold on them,” Farrell said. “We keep them for them.”

Cooper said she’s noticed more clients being held in jail, even after paying their bonds.

“We've seen local law enforcement cooperate as it pertains to holding people on what's called a detainer warrant,” Cooper said. “So people are making bonds, but they're not releasing them which to me is unconstitutional.”

It’s more important now, Cooper said, for people to know their rights.

“If they come to your home you don’t have to open the door,” Cooper said. “If you encounter them on the street, you don't have to talk to them. The same thing at your work place.”

A group of local nonprofits is planning "A Day Without Immigrants" Strike on May 1, when immigrants will stay home from work and marches are expected to take place in Memphis.