TAMPA — Several area sheriff’s offices are crying foul about their inclusion on a national list of agencies accused of being soft on undocumented residents who commit crimes.
Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas are among seven Florida counties included on a recent map of so-called “sanctuary cities” released by the Center for Immigration Studies. The agencies are listed among more than 200 across the nation that the center says “protect criminal aliens from deportation by refusing to comply with (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainers or otherwise impede open communication and information exchanges between their employees or officers and federal immigration agents.”
The center, which bills itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C., said the agencies provide sanctuary for illegal alien criminals because they refuse to honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold undocumented residents accused of a crime for up to 48 hours while the agency determines when and if to pick them up for deportation.
That’s “nonsense,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco called the accusation “completely wrong.”
“It’s not true,” said Colonel Ken Davis, who oversees the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Department of Detention Services. “In my mind, it’s a pretty reckless choice of words by that organization.”
Sanctuary cities — and counties and states — have been the focus of a national debate recently after the July 1 shooting death of a San Francisco woman, allegedly by a Mexico native with a lengthy criminal record who had been deported from the United States multiple times.
San Francisco is one of a handful of cities that has a sanctuary law, the “Sanctuary Ordinance,” that prevents city employees from helping ICE without a warrant or unless required by federal or state law.
Sanctuary cities, which have no set, legal definition, have come under fire, with many arguing that if San Francisco didn’t have such a policy, the woman wouldn’t have been killed. Presidential candidates including Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have weighed in on the policies.
The Tampa area has no sanctuary ordinance, however. The sheriffs say they follow the recommendation of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which sent out a legal alert late last year warning their agencies that a detainer request from ICE does not allow them to hold someone without probable cause.
The alert cited two federal cases: Galarza v. Szalczyk and Miranda-Olivares v. Clackamas County. In both cases, people believed to be in the country illegally were arrested for a crime and were able to post bail but remained in jail because of a request from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold them while the agency decided whether they would be deported. In one case, the man being held in jail turned out to be an American citizen born in New Jersey.
In both those cases, the federal courts ruled the ICE detainer request was not enough probable cause to prevent those arrested from posting bond on their original charge and being released.
As a result of those cases and the Florida Sheriffs Association memo, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office changed its policy regarding ICE detainers and now requires a warrant or judge’s order to hold someone who is otherwise able to bond out or leave the jail. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office did the same thing.
HCSO “will no longer extend the detention of inmate’s (sic) who are only being investigated for possible removal from the United States,” Sheriff David Gee wrote in an August 2014 letter to ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol.
“We don’t hold people in jail on suspicion of any crime,” Davis said. “We hold people in jail based on probable cause. If they have probable cause, if this person is illegally in the country and they are going to deport them, we hold them.”
When someone is taken to jail, their fingerprints are taken and uploaded into a national database. If they are in the system as someone who is in the country illegally, ICE is automatically notified.
If the agency knows ICE has an interest in the arrested person, both Hillsborough and Pinellas will notify the federal agency when the person will be released so the agency knows when to pick them up if it chooses to do so, Davis and Gualtieri said.
Even with that notification, Gualtieri said, ICE often doesn’t send an agent to pick up an inmate.
“They let go more than they come and get, no question about it,” he said.
Nocco said he sees the same thing, though he said ICE usually picks up those who are accused of a violent crime.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, got the list of sanctuary cities, which she said ICE presented to Congress last year, through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Each city listed as a “sanctuary” has a different policy regarding ICE detainer requests, ranging from San Francisco’s Sanctuary Ordinance to the efforts of law enforcement in parts of Arizona and Colorado who try to get around the state laws regarding immigration, Vaughan said.
Although the Tampa area practices of notifying ICE when an inmate is being released is “commendable,” requiring a judge’s order to hold someone is “obstruction in a big way,” she said.
Using the information she received through the Freedom of Information request, Vaughan wrote an accompanying report that showed that sanctuary policies in 276 jurisdictions allowed for the release of more than 8,000 criminal offenders who are in the country illegally over an eight-month period.
Sixty-three percent of the individuals freed had prior criminal histories, the report said, and 1,900 of them were arrested again for another crime soon after their release.
Requiring a warrant or judge’s order to hold someone who is otherwise able to bond out or leave the jail is an unreasonable requirement by local agencies, Vaughan said.
“That’s even more of an argument for complying with the detainer,” she said. “If they’re letting them go, than ICE is never going to be able to remove these people.”
The sheriffs, though, said the recent court cases illustrate that local agencies don’t have the jurisdiction to keep undocumented residents in their jails solely on immigration status. If those arrested are able to bond out for the charges on which they’re arrested, their hands are tied, they said.
“I, as the sheriff, have absolutely zero authority to make any determinations regarding immigration,” Gualtieri said. “As much as I don’t want that illegal alien here, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not comment on the issue other than to release a statement that says “ICE continues to work cooperatively with our local law enforcement partners throughout the country to develop policies and procedures that best represent all agencies’ efforts to uphold public safety.”
The statement highlighted the Department of Homeland Security’s new initiative known as the Priority Enforcement Program, which requires ICE agents to replace detainer requests with requests for notification about when an inmate will be released, particularly with regard to criminals who meet heightened “enforcement priorities.”
The Priority Enforcement Program “is a balanced, common-sense approach, that places the focus where it should be: on criminals and individuals who threaten the public safety,’’ the statement said. “ICE is committed to working with its law enforcement partners in Florida and nationwide to achieve that mission.”
Davis said other sheriff’s offices in Florida have identical policies ,and the only reason the Tampa-area counties were on the Center for Immigration Studies map is likely because they have written policies regarding what they do when ICE sends them a detainer request.
None of the local sheriffs consider their jurisdictions to be “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants, they said.
The issue is one of federal policy, and until that is changed, the sheriffs said, they can’t do more than they do already to help ICE agents with immigration cases.
“The bottom line is the Constitution of the United States and of Florida requires probable cause to put somebody in jail. Period,” Davis said. “There is no more to the discussion than that.”