Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to crack down on illegal immigration is slowly expanding the footprint of federal immigration authorities in parts of Florida’s criminal justice system. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, now has formal agreements with 49 Florida sheriffs. Probation officers are notifying federal deportation officers about offenders. And a North Florida prison is poised to deputize corrections workers to perform some functions of immigration officers.
The wave of cooperation skyrocketed after DeSantis last summer signed a bill that requires local officials to use “best efforts to support federal immigration law.” The law is known as a ban on so-called “sanctuary” cities, which DeSantis vowed to outlaw during his 2018 campaign for governor.
Republican backers touted the controversial measure as a requirement to follow federal law. The statute requires local governments to “use their best efforts to support the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
Before the law went into effect in July, 14 of the state’s sheriffs had agreements with ICE to train deputies working in county jails to perform some functions of immigration officers. As of April 14, a total of 49 Florida sheriffs have inked some type of agreement with the federal immigration agency.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, told The News Service of Florida that the influx of agreements came, in part, to comply with the new state law. But participation in federal immigration programs is not required under the law, according to Amien Kacou, an immigration attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
“That’s a misrepresentation of the law,” Kacou said. “The whole point of these agreements is really to force multiplication and shortcuts. That’s been the easiest way for ICE to get people without actually putting in the work and doing what is necessary.”
Under the Florida law, local officials cannot prohibit a law enforcement agency from “participating in any program or agreement” authorized under the federal 287(g) program, which includes agreements sheriffs are using.
ICE spokeswoman Tamara Spicer said that, while not all of Florida’s 67 counties have an agreement, all jails are complying with ICE “detainers,” which are requests from ICE told hold suspected undocumented immigrants in county jails until immigration officers pick them up.
Sheriffs run 58 jails in Florida, and nine are operated by county governments. At the state level, a federal advisory aboard has “reviewed and approved” the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Washington County to participate in an ICE-supervised program. Corrections officials said last November the program will help correctional officers at the state prison to “identify and process criminal aliens who may pose a risk to public safety in Florida.”
The agreement is “awaiting signature” from ICE, Sean Stephens, an ICE official, wrote to the corrections department in an email last December. The federal agency has not formally approved the agreement yet.
Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, which is authorized to sue entities that violate the 2019 law, has received a single complaint about non-compliance since the law went into effect last year, according to Lauren Cassedy, a spokeswoman for Moody.
The complaint accused Broward County commissioners of having a “twisted political agenda” to help “illegal aliens,” Cassedy said. But the complaint was not investigated due to a lack of detail, she added.
“We currently do not have an investigation. Our office stands ready to enforce the law,” Cassedy said.