With the election fast approaching, Gov. Lawton Chiles on Thursday announced an agreement with federal immigration officials that gives prosecutors broad authority to deport criminal aliens.
The announcement by the governor, now neck and neck with challenger Jeb Bush in a tough re-election campaign, was the latest in a flurry of furious punches and counterpunches on the critical crime issue.
Chiles got help from Attorney General Janet Reno, who as head of the Justice Department is in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"Janet Reno understands our special problems," said U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who joined Chiles at a campaign stop later in the day. "She has been working hard to see that our special needs are understood and met by the federal government."
The new agreement, applying to Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, allows state and federal prosecutors to use deportation as a tool in negotiating with illegal aliens who are arrested on misdemeanor or felony charges. They can take their chance on trial and prison or consent to deportation to their home countries.
"This is not a concept that operates with respect to an arrest of someone for murder or a serious narcotics charge," said U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey.
Backed by U.S. Naturalization and Immigration Service Commissioner Doris Meissner, Coffey and four state attorneys, Chiles said the plan will save taxpayers money by avoiding trial and prison costs and will rid the streets of criminals who agree to go home.
He described the program as "a front-end" approach to an agreement reached in April with the INS. That agreement allows Florida to deport illegal aliens already convicted and serving time in state prisons.
Coffey said the crime bill passed by Congress provided the money to hire more Border Patrol officers and state Department of Law Enforcement officers to screen and track illegal aliens who are arrested.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer tried a similar program for three months in 1993, and 174 illegal aliens accepted deportation after arrests.
"This is a project that just makes sense," said Coffey. "I have no doubt it's going to prove effective because it's already proven effective in Palm Beach County."
The program also launches the Criminal Alien Apprehension Team to target criminal aliens who have eluded capture.
Robyn Blumner, Florida director of the ACLU, said anyone who is here illegally can be deported any time they're detected.
"There's nothing new here," she said. "It's an empty gesture, but it's a political gesture which will draw attention to Chiles and show voters he's tough on immigration."
If the announcement helps his re-election, Chiles said that's the way it goes.
"I think it's a good public policy initiative and good public policy usually makes good politics," he said.
The deportation offer would be made to suspects arrested for burglary, theft and property crimes but not for violent crime or drug trafficking. Convicted felons caught for new crimes can be deported whether they consent or not. It won't apply to Cubans because president Fidel Castro refuses to accept deported criminals.
Fewer than a tenth of Florida's 56,178 prisoners are foreign born, and of these, 2,401 are illegal aliens, according to Glen Holley, research associate at the Department of Corrections. Half are Cuban, and the rest come from Jamaica, Colombia, Mexico, Haiti, and various South American and Central American countries.
Later, Chiles was on hand to sign papers releasing 16 criminal aliens from Baker Correctional Institute. That brought to 165 the number of illegal aliens released from Florida prisons and deported. Any of those caught coming back under either program faces federal charges punishable by a 20-year prison sentence.
Times Staff Writer Reena Shah Stamets contributed to this report.