In an echo of the emotional debates that have roiled politics in southwestern border states, Pinellas County sheriff candidate Everett Rice is promising to put local deputies to work trying to identify and deport illegal immigrants if he is elected.
Rice says his agenda responds to concern about immigration among voters. But critics say his proposals are tailored to exploit anti-immigrant sentiment and have more to do with politics than public safety.
In an interview, Rice said he would promote passage of a state law requiring deputies to determine the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, provided the constitutionality of a similar Arizona statute is upheld.
He also said the federal deportation program in the nation's county jails doesn't go far enough. He suggested publishing the names of all illegal immigrants arrested in Pinellas County as a strategy for hastening their exit from American soil.
"The government has totally abdicated its responsibility when it comes to immigration. Whatever the sheriff can do to help, I'll do," said Rice, a Republican who served four terms as sheriff, from 1988 to 2004, and one term as a state representative, from 2004 to 2006. "Everywhere you go, there's people saying, 'What are you going to do about the illegal aliens?' "
Some of his recent campaign literature has an answer. "Rice will deport illegal aliens found in our jail" was one of four reasons to vote for him listed in a mailer to voters this month. Critics say the pledge is dubious in light of the sheriff's lack of authority in immigration matters.
Statistics suggest illegal immigration is not a big problem for the Sheriff's Office. The average daily number of Pinellas County Jail inmates flagged for processing by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is 75, according to the Sheriff's Office, or 2.4 percent of the jail's average daily inmate population of 3,100.
That's below the 3.3 percent national average of county jail inmates with ICE immigration holds, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In states such as Arizona and California, the percentage of those with ICE holds can reach double digits.
'Joe Arpaio Lite'
Rice's tough immigration stance is consistent with a rightward drift for the candidate.
Once a moderate, he now says he is unsure whether President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen. And he has aligned himself with former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, who heads a consortium of police officials devoted to anti-government activism.
Rice's proposals prompted comparison with another prominent Mack ally: Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Arizona lawman whose controversial efforts to combat illegal immigration have brought him national publicity. The U.S. Justice Department is suing Arpaio over what it says is systematic discrimination against Latinos by his deputies in Maricopa County.
Rice's ideas amount to "sheer demagogic political argument," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. Simon said county officials have no authority to tamper with federal immigration policy.
"He's a little bit confused as to whether he's running for county sheriff or if he's running to be the head of the Department of Homeland Security," Simon said. "This fellow wants to be 'Joe Arpaio Lite.' "
It was a criticism echoed by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Rice's opponent in the Aug. 14 Republican primary. Gualtieri said he is strongly opposed to illegal immigration, but a county sheriff doesn't have much authority to take on the issue.
He said he has not heard immigration concerns on the campaign trail and suspects Rice is trying to turn a national controversy to local political advantage.
"I think he's back pandering to this far-right crowd," he said.
Responded Rice, "I don't think it's being far-right to enforce the law and do something about the illegal aliens."
Rice's emphasis on illegal immigration comes as national policy shifts are under way. Last week President Obama announced the government will cease deporting young illegal immigrants who meet several criteria, such as having no criminal history and living here at least five years.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling any day on the constitutionality of an Arizona statute that requires police to try to determine the status of people they suspect of being in the country illegally during "any lawful stop, detention or arrest." Critics say the statute encourages racial profiling.
If the Arizona law gets the high court's approval, Rice said he would advocate passage of a similar measure in Florida.
Gualtieri said he would enforce laws passed by the Florida Legislature, but he doesn't think it is sound policy to make deputies try to figure out the immigration status of people who are not otherwise going to be booked into the county jail.
Rice also said Secure Communities, the ICE program for cooperating with police officials on immigration enforcement, is not doing enough to crack down on immigrants. The program runs immigration checks on all suspects arrested at the local level, then issues immigration holds on some of them, leading to deportation after their criminal cases are resolved.
In response to a government task force's criticism that Secure Communities was too sweeping, the Department of Homeland Security scaled back the program earlier this year to focus on repeat violators and those accused of serious crimes. It no longer requires deportation of those arrested, but not convicted, on minor traffic violations.
Rice said the more tightly focused approach is too lax.
"All illegal aliens should be deported," he said. "I don't think the level of the offense makes any difference."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman Nestor Yglesias defended Secure Communities, saying it "has proven to be the single most valuable tool in allowing the agency to eliminate the ad hoc approach of the past and focus on criminal aliens and repeat immigration law violators."
Public immigrants list
Rice said he wouldn't overstep his authority as sheriff on immigration enforcement — he would just spur federal officials to get more aggressive.
"It's clearly a federal issue," he said. "I'm just saying I'd bring as much pressure to bear as the sheriff can to do something."
One method, he said, could be to put out a public list of the names of all illegal immigrants at the jail. "I think the public has the right to know how many illegal aliens are in jail and what the government is doing about it," Rice said.
Simon said such a list would be an appeal to darker emotions in the electorate equivalent to "publicly flogging" immigrants.
Gualtieri would not try to pressure ICE to change its policies on immigration enforcement, saying such questions are best decided at the federal level.
"I've got plenty of other things as sheriff to do," he said. "That's not a priority in Pinellas County."
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.