TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office will no longer jail immigrants who are being investigated for deportation, a policy change that brings the agency in line with other local sheriff's offices.
In letters sent last month to U.S. Border Patrol and Homeland Security officials, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said his office will only honor immigration detainer requests if there is a legal order to do so. Sheriffs in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties have all previously instituted similar policies.
Local immigration activist group Raíces en Tampa is taking credit for the change.
"This is a big victory for us," said Oscar Hernandez, a spokesman for the group. "We've been pushing since June for them to change the policy."
Previously, Hillsborough held all arrested undocumented immigrants at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for up to two days, even if the inmate posted bail.
Spokesman Larry McKinnon said the Sheriff's Office began reviewing the policy after a federal judge in Oregon ruled in April that an immigrant woman's rights were violated when she was held in jail at ICE's request.
"We took that information and saw that courts were leaning in that direction, so we took that position as well," McKinnon said.
The policy change went into effect Aug. 20, he said.
In many cases, immigrants would end up in jail for minor charges, like driving with a suspended license, Hernandez said. "And just because of that, they get deported," he said.
Now deputies will only hold inmates when a charging document initiating deportation has been filed, a warrant has been issued, or removal from the United States has been ordered.
Members of Raíces en Tampa plan to hold a news conference Friday to discuss the change.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced in July that he would allow undocumented immigrants who post bail to leave the county jail. The change, he said at the time, was meant to avoid legal entanglements that might arise from holding immigrants who were not subject to a deportation order.
Many local agencies have amended their policies based on a lawsuit in Pennsylvania in which a man of Puerto Rican descent was arrested on a cocaine charge and not allowed to post $15,000 bail due to an ICE hold. Days later, federal agents realized he was born in New Jersey. He was also acquitted on the drug charge.
The man sued several entities, including ICE and Lehigh County in Pennsylvania. The suit was dismissed, but an appeals court ruled in March that a federal hold "merely authorizes the issuance of detainers as requests," but is not the law, court records show.
Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report.