Over the past three months, many county law enforcement agencies in Florida have signed off on a plan for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train and deputize officers, giving them the ability to arrest and detain undocumented immigrants.
Miami-Dade — the largest and most diverse county in the state — has not, at least officially.
The agreement, called The Warrant Service Officers program, was introduced in May as a way for law enforcement agencies to more easily comply with a controversial state law passed during the last legislative session. It banned so-called “sanctuary cities” from protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation.
ICE and law enforcement agencies that have signed off on the working agreement defend it as little more than a legal tweak, not an expansion of immigration enforcement forces.
Supporters say it is aimed at addressing a 2014 federal court ruling that found that jailers, once local charges were resolved, could not detain inmates to face potential deportation simply because of a federal request. The new agreement, they say, allows authorized jailers to hold inmates up to 48 hours without a court-ordered immigration detainer.
And they insist the agreement does not give deputies the ability to take immigrants into custody simply on suspicion that they may be undocumented.
“It’s only in the jails. It has no effect outside the four walls of the jail,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who helped create the plan. “In order for you to be impacted by this, you have had to have committed a crime.”
But critics of the agreement call it an expansion of the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants and say it’s only a matter of time before the agreement faces a legal challenge.
“This is another attempt to strike fear into the community. Despite its seemingly narrow scope, the effect is the same, chilling the trust of the immigrant communities in local law enforcement,” said Adonia Simpson, an attorney who directs the Family Defense Program at Americans for Immigrant Justice. “These continued attempts to empower local law enforcement to act on behalf of ICE will cost our communities taxpayer dollars and will be challenged in court.”
Gaby Guadalupe, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the program “another flawed attempt” to turn local law enforcement into ICE agents.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “our local officials have chosen to become complicit in anti-immigrant programs largely based on racial profiling and fraught with unconstitutional practices, resulting in the separation of Florida families and sowing distrust for law enforcement in our communities.”
Miami-Dade has not joined the program and does not sound inclined to do so. In the past, county political leaders have said they would not support federally deputizing county police officers or jailers. ICE crackdowns can be a tough sell in a county with a massive immigrant community that has leaned Democratic in recent years. Miami-Dade Corrections Chief Daniel Junior acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize we have a large, diverse community here,’’ Junior said. “So there’s also the human factor. We don’t want folks caught up in that system if they don’t need to be.”
But over the last three years, the county has still largely been adhering to requests by ICE to detain undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours. That’s because in 2016 Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered a directive to hold the immigrants after President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from local governments that provided sanctuary to undocumented residents.
“There’s no need to deputize our officers,” said Junior. “Their detention has already been approved. If they’re not picked up within 48 hours, then they’re released.”
Program supporters call criticism from immigration advocacy groups overblown and argue that the agreement also has other benefits for counties, protecting local agencies from lawsuits and making it easier for them to recover money spent on jailing undocumented immigrants.
That payback provision might benefit Miami-Dade. Junior said the cost for the detention of undocumented immigrants is close to $200 per person per day and that despite repeated requests, ICE has not reimbursed the county since it began detaining people. County records show that in the first year Gimenez ordered the policy implemented, a little more than one person a day was being detained on average.
For a deputy to become certified as a Warrant Service Officer, a county must sign a memorandum of understanding with ICE listing how many officers would be deputized. Each would then receive eight hours of training.
In Pinellas County, where Gualtieri oversees the department, 40 deputies have received the required eight hours of training. He downplayed the impact of the agreement. Though the deputized officers technically would have the ability to make arrests, serve warrants and interview detainees for immigration violations alone, he argued that practically speaking that wouldn’t happen.
That’s because the officer would have no way of knowing if there was a deportation or detention order until a suspect picked up on local criminal charges was fingerprinted. It’s only after ICE reviews the prints in a federal database that local agencies learn of deportation orders, he said. At that point, if there is an order to detain, the newly authorized warrant officer can place a hold on the suspected criminal — but only for up to 48 hours before ICE must come and pick the person up.
If ICE doesn’t make it in time, the person is released. According to Gualtieri, the difference between Miami-Dade’s current practice and the new program is that warrant service officers can now offer detainer requests in a lawful manner.
As of two weeks ago, about four dozen of the state’s 67 counties, including Broward, had signed on to the agreement, according to a spokeswoman with the Florida Sheriffs Association, which Gualtieri heads and which is responsible for coordinating the agreement between the counties and ICE.
Like Miami-Dade, Hillsborough County, a large urban county that includes Tampa, has not signed up either. There, Sheriff Chad Chronister told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year that participating in the enforcement “could discourage victims from coming forward, which goes against our purpose.”
It’s a argument against the arrangement echoed by Thomas Kennedy, political director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, who promised a challenge to the new program.
“The anti-immigrant legislators that seek to impose this extra burden on our police are jumping through hoops to attempt to clear some sort of legal justification to violate the due process of individuals subjected to detainers,” said Kennedy. “This is an irresponsible policy that will be challenged.”