SERIES: IMMIGRATION LAW
- Poll: Should law enforcement be able to check citizen status?
- Poll: Should Florida have an Arizona-style law cracking down on illegal immigrants?
- Photos: Faces of Immigration
- Photos: Standing up against immigration laws
- Video: Faces of Immigration - Modesta Velasco
- Story: Proposed bills to stir controversy about illegals
- Story: Husband faces deportation, family fights for American dream
- Gov. Scott sticking to campaign rhetoric supporting legislation
- Legislation could be catastrophic to agriculture businesses
- Facing deportation, man becomes face of protest against proposed legislation
- Non-profits hold out hope for no legislation
- Law enforcement says bills wouldn't change checking citizen status
- Click here to read more stories about the immigration issue »
One by one the graduates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.
It could have been a college graduation, but the 27 graduates were all wearing Collier County Sheriff’s Office uniforms.
For the graduating deputies and corrections officers, the September 2007 ceremony marked the end of an intense, five-week cross-training session with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allowed them to act as immigration and deportation agents. The agency has since placed immigration detainers on more than 3,000 criminal aliens who have entered the local jail.
For many Florida law enforcement officers, determining a suspect’s immigration status is nothing new. That’s why some believe new immigration bills being considered in the Florida Legislature this session would not significantly change the way they do their jobs. The legislative session begins March 8.
“It’s just another option, another avenue, available to law enforcement agencies to identify criminal aliens,” said Commander Mike Williams, who previously oversaw Collier’s immigration program and now acts as a legal adviser for the agency.
“I don’t really think it would affect us at all. When people come into our jail, we already try to determine immigration status.”
However, other law enforcement officials believe enforcing an “Arizona-style” immigration law would require more money and staff, and could have the unintended consequence of eroding trust in immigrant communities.
“Every year our budget is under more and more pressure,” Martin County Sheriff Bob Crowder said.
There is also concern that portions of the bills that make it a misdemeanor for immigrants to fail to carry immigration documents could be used as a way to get them arrested, even if they have committed no other crime.
“I can actually see people, the hard-core immigration people, using this as a sword, calling in fictitious crimes, and the officer is going to have to go out there and take their complaint,” said Charlie Mesloh, an associate professor of criminal justice at Florida Gulf Coast University. “He’s going to have to identify the potential suspect. He’s going to have to determine who’s who, because somebody has named them in a crime.”
State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, filed a bill that would require Florida officers to make a “reasonable effort” to determine the immigration status of people they stop, detain or arrest if they believe “reasonable suspicion exists” that the person is in the country illegally. Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, filed a similar bill in the House.
Officers would not be allowed to consider race, color or national origin, according to the bills.
Requiring officers to check immigration status of anyone stopped in traffic would be expensive, Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar said. Law enforcement agencies, like other areas of government, already took a hit in the recent recession.
“We are continuing having to do more with less,” Loar said.
Lee County deputies are already checking suspects’ immigration status, said Sheriff Mike Scott, who supports the bills and doesn’t understand the fuss. One of the most common phrases an officer uses during his career is “Can I see your ID?” he said. Officers don’t just walk away if a suspect doesn’t have identification.
“You don’t stop enforcing the law,” Scott said, “and anybody who suggests that we stop enforcing the law, I’ll give you a real blunt word, is stupid.”
The new bills would make it easier for local law enforcement officers to work more closely with ICE, which has the ultimate say on who gets deported and who doesn’t, Williams said. States and local agencies, technically, can’t deport anyone.
“I don’t see anything particularly burdensome in here,” Williams said. “There’s nothing burdensome about contacting ICE and notifying them that an illegal immigrant is present in your jail.”
In most cases, when inmates are booked into Florida jails, corrections staff ask for their place of birth. For anyone not born in the United States, jail officials contact ICE.
The agency places a “hold” on the inmate to allow agents to investigate immigration status. ICE agents determine which arrested illegal immigrant to transport to a federal detention center based on the seriousness of the crime with priority given to offenders charged with murder, rape, drug trafficking and crimes against children, ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas said.
The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program reimburses local jails for housing illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or at least two misdemeanors, and who have spent at least four days in jail.
For fiscal year 2010, the Florida Department of Corrections received more than $13.8 million for incarcerating convicted illegal immigrants, $793,761 of that going to Collier County, records show.
“We are doing everything that we can that we have the resources to do and the authority to do,” Crowder said. “The start of this problem is to get the federal government to work the way it’s supposed to.”
Rather than increase the jail population, Collier’s jail population has decreased by about 25 percent since the agency teamed with ICE. Officials attribute that decrease, in part, to removing repeat criminals from the community.
Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, suggested that legislators take a look at Collier’s program when creating a statewide immigration policy. Immigration status checks would only be initiated if a person was arrested, or under investigation, for a crime.
“I think that works very well in Collier County, and I feel comfortable with it,” she said.
Allowing local law enforcement to transport illegal immigrants to federal detention centers — like the Krome Service Processing Center in Miami — would also be costly, Indian River County Jail Sgt. Bill Walsh said.
“That would cripple our manpower,” Walsh said. “Whose going to do the job left by that deputy?”
Some officials are concerned the immigration reform bills would cost the most in the area of lost trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement.
“We don’t want people to be afraid to report crimes for fear they would be deported,” Crowder said. “We have to do our job in law enforcement with no political dogma attached.”
However, Williams said Collier officials have no evidence that their immigration program has caused fewer immigrants to report crimes.
“We have not had one official complaint to the Sheriff’s Office or one official complaint to ICE about our program,” he said. “I think that’s something that’s overlooked.”