Sheriff's candidates: Illegal immigration a 'major issue' in 2012

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Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk on NewsMakers 8-14-11.

Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk on NewsMakers 8-14-11.

Victor Ortino, candidate for Collier County Sheriff, on NewsMakers 5-13-12.

Victor Ortino, candidate for Collier County Sheriff, on NewsMakers 5-13-12.

Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott

Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott

Tim Fisher, candidate for Lee County Sheriff, on NewsMakers 5-6-12.

Tim Fisher, candidate for Lee County Sheriff, on NewsMakers 5-6-12.

While enforcing immigration policies has traditionally been the burden of federal authorities, local and state governments are increasingly taking on a larger role.

Between questions about Collier County's crime rate and the Sheriff's Office's budget at a recent debate, incumbent Sheriff Kevin Rambosk and challenger Victor Ortino were grilled on their views on immigration.

Ortino called immigration a "major issue" in Collier, saying something must be done to stop those living in the county illegally. Rambosk lauded his agency on putting detainers on more than 3,800 illegal immigrants, "saving you dollars and making your community safe."

The four candidates for sheriff facing off in the August Republican primaries in Lee and Collier counties agree local law enforcement has a role to play in terms of identifying illegal immigrants and enforcing the laws on the books, but disagree over the scope of the problem.

Collier County

Rambosk, who serves on the Immigration and Border Security Committee for the National Sheriff's Association, said his agency's 287(g) program makes Collier safer, saves taxpayer money and is a necessary backup to unsecure borders.

The 287(g) program, named after a section of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, allows trained local law enforcement officers to act as deportation agents.

"There is no question that we have got to improve border security in this country," Rambosk said. "I also believe 287(g) should be expanded to more law enforcement agencies across the nation, because if everybody participated in much smaller amounts, we could remove many more criminal illegal aliens in this country."

But Department of Homeland Security officials have indicated the program is being phased out. It likely will be replaced with the Secure Communities program, in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement will receive fingerprints of inmates booked into local jails.

"If we utilized only Secure Communities, it would pretty much remove our participation from the system other than fingerprinting," Rambosk said. "287(g) is a much more comprehensive program, and it would be a loss to our community."

The sheriff said if 287(g) were to go away, he would rally the community to contact their federal legislators in opposition.

Ortino agreed with Rambosk that the federal government was not doing enough to stop illegal immigration and said it was not a good idea to get rid of 287(g).

"I think that we need to really secure our borders," he said. "The federal government should have most of the burden, but if the federal government can't do their job, then for the safety of the citizens in this county, we should be able to assist."

One Sheriff's Office procedure that has caused division is its periodic traffic safety checkpoints, where drivers on certain roads are pulled over and asked for proof of insurance, up-to-date driver licenses and registration. Some local advocates have questioned if the checkpoints unfairly target Hispanics.

Ortino said he was "not in favor of checkpoints," but agreed with the current administration's policy of checking the immigration status of those booked into jail.

Rambosk said the Sheriff's Office does not "seek out" traffic violations or driver license violations.

"But if you're driving illegally, you have the potential to get arrested," he said, "and if you get arrested, we need to determine who is in our jail because it's our responsibility to know who's here and effectively identify them."

Lee County

Both the incumbent sheriff, Mike Scott, and his challenger, Tim Fisher, say illegal immigration has been on the decline in recent years because there are fewer jobs in Lee County for undocumented workers.

Scott said his agency might encounter 10 or fewer illegal immigrants per week.

"Politically or otherwise, I just don't see it on the front burner like it was," he said.

Lee County does not have a 287(g) program, though it had at one point been on a list to get one, the sheriff said. Scott said he looks at illegal immigration "as very clear in terms of the law."

"If we stop a person and determine they are foreign-born or without documentation, we have an obligation," he said. "The fact that it's called illegal immigration is telling. It's illegal. It can present a problem."

Although migrant workers are "a vital asset to our economy," Fisher said law enforcement officers are obligated to make sure they are properly documented.

"I believe that it's all about protecting and enforcing the laws that are one the books," he said. "What we have right now is what we need to implement. It's not law enforcement's job to decide."

Fisher said he would work with the federal government and get ICE involved in cases as needed.

"It's a difficult topic and certainly a hotbed because it affects so many people," he said. "I think that there's enough people who are on both sides of it to work it out in the courts."

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