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Courts / Law

Immigration Advocates Challenge Sheriff On Plan To Hold Undocumented Criminals

Mary Shedden
WUSF Public Media
Immigration Advocate Isabel Sousa, immigration attorney Mayra Calo and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri debate the ICE-Florida Sheriff's Partnership agreement that went into effect in January.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri on Monday faced critics of an agreement he drafted over the arrest of undocumented immigrants.

Pinellas and 16 other counties in Florida will hold inmates for 48 hours if federal immigration agents find they are here illegally. U.S. Immigrations and Enforcement, known as ICE, can issue a warrant and seek deportation.

Gualtieri, who was instrumental in drafting the agreement, told about 70 people attending the discussion at a St. Petersburg church that the focus is on keeping dangerous people off the street.

“If you rob the local convenience store, and you get arrested for a robbery, then guess what, you go to jail,” he said. “And when you go to jail and commit a crime, and ICE determines that you are here illegally, and you've committed a crime, then no, I don't think you should be here and ICE should be able to do its job within the framework of the law.”

Immigration advocates challenged the sheriff, saying the rule is leading to the deportation of good people. They say the arrests are happening for minor violations - like driving without a license.

Isabel Sousa, state membership director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said the plan drafted earlier this year by Gualtieri scares legal and undocumented immigrants.

“I’m worried about the increasing level of mistrust between the immigrant community, the Latino Community, people who feel racially profiled with law enforcement,” she said.

Gualtieri said the community doesn’t realize that sheriff’s deputies and other local law enforcement officers have no idea if a person they are arresting is in the country illegally. Local officers fingerprint suspects, but can't see if those prints make a match to a national database run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It’s something he and Sheriff’s from across the country have wanted to see.

“We've been asking for that for years,” Gualtieri said. “So yes, it would be beneficial for everybody if we could have access to that information.”

But Sousa said arrests on minor offenses like traffic violations are affecting undocumented people who have been law abiding and positive contributions to society.

“He's still helping to transfer people into federal custody, without understanding why they are being transferred into federal custody,” she said. “And so he's still helping a broken system.”

Advocates and the Sheriff did agree on one thing. They all say laws need to be fixed to improve current immigration policies.

The debate was hosted by Allendale United Methodist Church, the Florida Immigrant Coalition for Our Future, Women’s March Pinellas and Indivisible 13 -- a political advocacy group.

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