Sheriffs sign on to help with immigration enforcement

(File photo)

The number of Florida sheriffs who have signed agreements to participate in federal programs designed to catch undocumented immigrants in county jails has tripled.

Since the May 6 launch of an initiative known as the Warrant Service Officer program, 10 local law-enforcement agencies have signed contracts that will soon allow their corrections officers to be certified to perform functions of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, such as serving federal immigration detainers.

That brings the total number of local law-enforcement agencies participating in federal immigration programs to 15, with officials saying that number will soon tick up.

“I was told 37 that have agreed but that maybe have not completed the paperwork yet,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who is participating.

It’s not clear why other jurisdictions that have expressed interest have not been approved by the federal immigration agency. Tamara Spicer, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, said she can’t comment on pending requests, which include a request by the Florida Department of Corrections in early April to launch a pilot program that would deputize state correctional officers as immigration agents.

That program, which is known as the 287(g) program, includes five local law-enforcement agencies in Florida. The Warrant Service Officer program launched this month does not give as much authority and involve as much training for corrections workers.

The Polk County and Manatee County sheriff’s offices, which were approved for the Warrant Service Officer program, are waiting to have their officers trained, potentially as part of a regional training session for all 10 new participating agencies.

In Manatee County, where roughly 12 percent of the population is foreign-born, the sheriff’s office had been eyeing involvement ini some type of federal immigration program. But it decided to wait for the Warrant Service Officer program, which launched May 6 with the help of Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Randy Warren, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, and Judd said their agencies were not influenced by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to spur local law officers to participate in immigration enforcement.

“I appreciate the governor’s position on this, but I was involved in this before --- long before --- he became governor,” Judd said.

In 2017 and 2018, Polk County corrections officers honored 405 immigration detainers sent by federal authorities, which is equivalent to less than 1 percent of the total number of inmates booked into the jail in those two years.

The new administrative model will facilitate the issuance of immigration detainers, which have sparked legal challenges throughout the country, and allow local officials to keep people in custody for up to 48 hours after they would have been otherwise released. Critics maintain the administrative requests are unreliable and have resulted in the near-deportation of natural-born citizens.

Amien Kacou, an immigration attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, described the Warrant Service Officer program as an attempt by Immigration and Customs Enforcement “to cut corners by enrolling local law enforcement in a sham scheme to arrest immigrants for deportation on mere civil administrative charges at local taxpayer expense.”

“Local law enforcement resources ought to be dedicated to protecting and serving local communities,” Kacou said. “Unfortunately, certain Florida sheriffs have chosen to become complicit in immigration enforcement programs largely based on racial profiling and unconstitutional practices, which result in the separation of Florida families.”

In the eyes of the federal government, however, the program facilitates needed deportations. Spicer said in a prepared statement that the program was “created to prevent the release of criminal aliens back into the community.”

Details remain scarce on exactly how many correctional officers will be certified, with the numbers varying from county to county.

Judd, for example, hopes to eventually have up to 20 corrections officers certified so he can staff the jail booking area with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The only thing that will cost us is the labor time, because the training will be free,” Judd said. “It will be kind of like their normal workday.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.