By Tony Marrero
NEW PORT RICHEY — The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is taking steps to turn some of its jail deputies into federal immigration agents.
Sheriff Chris Nocco has signed an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to join a controversial program that give deputies the power to check the immigration status of people booked into the county jail and to serve warrants on suspected undocumented inmates — a process that could lead to deportation.
The decision puts the Sheriff's Office in the middle of a national debate over whether local law enforcement should play a role in enforcing federal immigration laws.
The first sheriff in the Tampa Bay area and only the fourth in Florida to join the program, Nocco says the partnership will resolve a legal dilemma over detaining ICE suspects in the jail while making the county safer by moving them more quickly toward deportation proceedings.
"If somebody's here illegally and committing crime in our community, why should they be allowed to stay?" Nocco said. "It just puts more of a burden on local law enforcement and victimizes people in their own community, so for us it was a no-brainer."
But civil rights advocates say the partnership makes sheriffs complicit in President Donald Trump's ramped-up campaign to deport more immigrants, regardless of whether they have criminal records. The expanded role puts otherwise harmless people at risk of deportation, they say, leads to racial profiling by deputies and actually endangers communities by discouraging immigrants from working with deputies to fight crime.
"Entering this agreement does not allow the sheriff to exercise his own discretion, so a mom caught driving without a license will be treated the same as someone who committed a heinous act like murder," said Alyson Sincavage, a legislative associate with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"It just makes these sheriffs pawns in Trump's deportation game."
Named after a section of federal law, the 287(g) program is probably best known for its "task force" agreement, enabling local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws in the field by interrogating suspected undocumented immigrants. President Barack Obama ended this part of the program in 2012.
Shortly after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order calling for expansion of the program. As of last week, 60 local agencies in the country are participating — a number that has nearly doubled in recent months.
The new popularity can be attributed, in part, to sheriffs seeking a legally sound method to comply with ICE requests that they hold immigration suspects for up to 48 hours after they are entitled to release on local charges. These so-called detainer requests give an ICE agent more time to reach the jail and take custody of a suspect.
Some sheriffs, even those who otherwise support an immigration crackdown, have declined to honor the requests because courts have ruled they violate the Fourth Amendment's protection against unlawful seizure. Inmates often are released before ICE can get there.
Meantime, the Trump administration has threatened to withhold federal funding from agencies deemed uncooperative in enforcing immigration laws.
Nocco's agency has generally honored ICE detainer requests, complying with 54 out of the 62 sent to the Pasco jail between Jan. 1 and last Thursday, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Still, Nocco remains concerned about the court rulings.
"The detainer issue has become so convoluted," he said. "Now we'll be able to handle it ourselves in house."
Under the partnership, ICE trains and certifies jail deputies to question inmates about their immigration status, to check them in an ICE database, to draw up charging documents including notices to appear in federal immigration court, and to serve the federal immigration warrant so they can be held until a ICE arrives to take custody.
Nocco signed the new agreement with ICE at the end of August and deputies are scheduled to begin the required six-week training soon for certification.
The Hernando County Sheriff's Office also has contacted ICE to discuss a partnership, said sheriff's Capt. Shaun Klucznik.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is evaluating the program but currently has no plans to participate, a spokesman said.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, an attorney, said making jail deputies federal immigration agents does solve issues courts have raised about ICE detainer requests but he doesn't see it as a wide-reaching solution.
Gualtieri questions the logistics and expense required for ICE to train and certify enough personnel to staff the nation's jails 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In his role as a member of the National Sheriffs Association, Gualtieri is leading talks with ICE to devise another solution.
Legal experts with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigration Law Center are concerned about the program's effect on immigrants who have little to no criminal history and who, until now, haven't been targets for deportation.
Trump's executive order and a subsequent memo from the Department of Homeland Security call for an aggressive effort to deport undocumented immigrants regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes.
Their numbers are estimated at 11 million.
"The message the Trump administration has sent ICE is that the gloves are off," said Michael Tan, a staff attorney for the ACLU. "They say you can target and go after everybody."
Nocco insisted he doesn't want to target lower-level offenders for deportation. But advocates say that once his deputies report an immigrant to ICE, it's out of the sheriff's hands.
Legal experts also worry that participation in the program will encourage deputies on the street to target people of color and immigrant communities to get suspected undocumented residents into the jail for a check on their status.
"It doesn't just crack open the door for profiling, it really swings it wide open, and it's really difficult to contain that," said Avideh Moussavian, senior policy attorney for the National Immigration Law Center.
An ICE fact sheet on the program says deputies receive training "on multicultural communication and the avoidance of racial profiling." If proof of racial profiling is uncovered, the sheet says, "that specific officer or department will have their authority and/or agreement rescinded."
Michael Coon, an assistant professor at or economics at University of Tampa, recently completed a case study that suggests the program resulted in a "biased increase" in the number of Hispanics arrested. Coon also concluded the program had a chilling effect in the Hispanic community's interactions with law enforcement.
"There was a diversion of resources toward the Hispanic community and away from the black and white communities," said Coon, who studied an ICE partnership started in 2008 by the sheriff's office in Frederick County, Md.
Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins called the study "nonsense," telling the Frederick News-Post that his agency had removed 90 gang members from the county and placed more than 1,300 people in immigration proceedings without complaints of racial profiling or deputy misconduct.
Coon questioned how effective the partnership program can be considering that many of the jurisdictions joining in have small immigrant populations. Foreign-born residents of Pasco County, for example, account for about 4 percent of the total population — less than half the state average, census data shows.
Politics, he added, may help explain why some sheriffs are interested in an ICE partnership, Coon said.
"Given that these areas have small immigrant populations," he said, "it can't really be much about public safety, but it makes (sheriffs) look like they're tough on crime."
Nocco says the program will not change his agency's policy prohibiting bias-based profiling. He said the Sheriff's Office has been working for years to build bridges with the county's immigrant community.
"The problem has been there are people preying on them," Nocco said. "They would have more faith in us if these people never came back."
He acknowledged that ICE decides who to deport and that low-level offenders with no criminal history, such as a mother driving without a license, might now be more at risk.
"We're upholding the law like it's always been upheld," he said. "In the situation before, that person would have come to the detention facility and ICE probably would have never picked them up. Now ICE may pick them up, so there are consequences now."
That worries Margarita Romo, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Farmworkers Self-Help Inc. in Dade City. Romo said she expects undocumented immigrants will shy away from deputies and law-abiding immigrants will be targeted.
"My concern is that now with this partnership nobody will be safe," Romo said. "A lot of these people are just families trying to make the best of a bad situation. I'm afraid (Nocco) doesn't realize the Pandora's box he's opened."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.