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ICE, Florida counties strike deal on new immigrant detention policy

Saying they’re tired of Congress punting on the issue, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, joined by the acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), announced a new agreement under which 17 local jails in Florida will hold undocumented immigrants for 48 hours after the inmate has posted bail to give federal agents time to take them into custody.

“Today is a good day for ICE. Today is a good day for Florida law enforcement. Today is a very good day for the residents of the state of Florida,” declared acting ICE Director Tom Homan, kicking off a news conference Wednesday announcing the new plan at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office in Largo.

The deal comes after months of (sometimes painstaking) negotiations between the Donald Trump administration, the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) and the Major County Sheriffs of America (MCSA).

For years, most (but not all) sheriff departments around the country abided by the ICE policy of requesting local law enforcement agencies hold suspected undocumented immigrants for periods of up to 48 hours before being transferred to ICE custody for possible deportation.

But that changed after a 2014 U.S. District Court ruling in Oregon found that state’s Clackamas County was liable for a woman’s unlawful detention under an ICE request, leading many sheriff departments to stop abiding by ICE’s requests to detain the undocumented.

“Sheriffs were between a rock and a hard place,” Gualtieri said. “We had to choose between releasing criminals out of our jails to commit more crimes and victimize our communities, or hold these illegal aliens and risk being sued and having to pay six-figure judgments for civil rights violations. Both options are bad places to be as a sheriff.”

Under the new presidential administration, ICE also began issuing new “detainers forms” last spring. The previous detainer policy recommended that ICE officials issue detainers when an undocumented immigrant had a prior conviction, like a felony, or had been caught illegally re-entering the U.S. after being deported. The new detainer policy included no detailed guidance, meaning ICE could send local police a detainer for any “subject” they believe “is removable from the United States.”

Under the BOA, sheriffs will enter into written agreements with ICE to hold undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours. According to a statement from ICE, BOA is not a contract but rather set of terms negotiated between an agency and a service provider that contain a description of services to be provided, terms applicable to a future order between the parties, and a method for pricing, issuing, and delivering on future orders. The agreement will allow local sheriffs departments to get paid $50 for holding undocumented immigrants for 48 hours.

The name Kate Steinle was invoked several times throughout the news conference. She’s the woman killed in 2015 while walking along the San Francisco waterfront by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported from the U.S. five times before the 2015 incident.

Steinle’s case became a bête noire for critics of the current immigration system in America.

Prosecutors argued that Juan Garcia Zarate intentionally shot the 32-year-old Steinle, but last month a San Francisco jury ruled it an accident and instead convicted him of being a felon in possession of a firearm, which could bring a three-year sentence.

Trump blasted the verdict, and Homan criticized San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy, saying the incident could have been prevented if the city simply turned Garcia Karate over to ICE as requested, rather than releasing him back onto the streets.

ICE is instituting the BOA process with a relatively small number of partner jurisdictions in order to ensure a smooth rollout but intends to gradually expand implementation with willing law enforcement partners over the coming year.

Participating county sheriffs are Pinellas, Lee, Manatee, Bay, Walton, Hernando, Brevard, Polk, Indian River, Charlotte, Monroe, Sarasota, Columbia, Santa Rosa, Suwannee, Hillsborough and Pasco.

After the news conference, the ACLU issued a statement criticizing the agreement.

“This plan is simply a repackaging of failed detainer policies that leaves sheriffs and jails on the hook for civil rights violations,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“Nothing announced today addresses the basic legal problems with detainers that courts have repeatedly recognized, and this is yet another example of the Trump administration running roughshod over the law in pursuit of its mass deportation agenda.”

Anticipating the blowback, Gualtieri said the premise is “blatantly false.”

“These administrative warrants issued by ICE are in full compliance with the law, and it has been upheld by the courts,” he said, adding that federal judges had no authority to issue warrants.

“This basic agreement is a return to the rule of law,” said Polk County Sheriff and MCSA head Grady Judd. “We don’t create the law. We don’t interpret the law. The people in this country expect us to enforce the law.”

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said that Sheriff Gualtieri approached him about joining the agreement just a few weeks ago. He said that it just “reaffirms” what the HCSO has been doing already. “This just formalizes the process of having an agreement in place with immigration for them to have up to 48 hours to come take custody of an individual if they want to.”

Gualtieri said that it will take sometime before the proposal is unveiled to other counties in Florida, and ultimately the rest of the country. When asked if this was a mandate that every sheriff’s department would be forced to adhere to, Gualtieri said it wasn’t a legal mandate, but a moral one.

“I view it as a mandate because we need to do the right thing,” he added.

The new reaction to the policy seemed divided along party lines.

“The trauma of witnessing or experiencing discrimination, detention, and deportation can have long lasting impacts on physical and mental health. Couple this with lack of access to healthcare that communities of color already face, and we are creating more problems than offering real, meaningful solutions that all Floridians deserve,” said House District 47 Democratic candidate Anna Eskamani

“The project also furthers the goals of House Bill 9, recently passed by the Florida House, to support federal immigration enforcement and safeguard the citizens of Florida,”  said Florida House Judiciary Committee Chair Chris Sprowls, a Republican from Safety Harbor. “The project will see federal and local law enforcement agencies working together to protect our community and strengthen the legal immigration process. I am happy to support this initiative.”

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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