Pinellas, Hillsborough sheriffs weigh in on ‘devastating’ family separation at border

He was the only one of Tampa Bay’s four top law enforcement officials, all Republicans, who responded to a request for comment on the controversial practice.
Published June 19, 2018|Updated June 19, 2018

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri this week denounced the federal government's practice of separating children from their families at the border as "devastating" while calling on Congress to pass laws to slow the flow of undocumented immigrants entering the United States.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister used the same word to describe the practice, while Tampa Bay's two other top law enforcement officials declined to participate in the national conversation sparking outcry from local, state and federal elected officials.

In an interview Monday, Gualtieri said the practice worsens the already-serious problem of illegal border crossings.

"I don't think it's right," the sheriff said. "Teenagers on down, the only thing a lot of them know are their parents. They need their parents."

He went on to caution against so-called "zero-tolerance" policies.

"Generally speaking, when you have absolutes," he said, "it usually leads to an improper and unjust result."

Chronister, while noting that immigration policy is beyond a local sheriff's purview, echoed Gualtieri's concerns. Appointed sheriff by fellow Republican Gov. Rick Scott last year after Sheriff David Gee abruptly retired, Chronister is now running for election.

"In general, zero tolerance policies, when it relates to families, removes flexibility to deal with unique circumstances," Chronister said in an email.

Gualtieri blamed Congress, specifically the U.S. Senate, for failing to pass laws to effectively clamp down on the "porousness of our borders" and said he sympathized with President Donald Trump's position having to address the issue.

"We're all reeling from this problem," he said. "Everyone is affected with that problem of open borders."

A spokeswoman said Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis wasn't available for comment. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said, "This is a federal issue and national immigration process that does not involve" his office.

About 2,000 children were separated from their families and placed in shelters at the border over six weeks in April and May, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The announcement has sparked public outcry and criticism from both sides of the aisle.

Gualtieri's response fell in line with that of Scott, who said in a statement Monday that, while he doesn't agree with separating families, "Washington is to blame for this by being all talk and no action, and the solution is to secure the border."

Gualtieri was one of 55 Florida sheriffs who endorsed Scott last week in his race against Sen. Bill Nelson. Nelson, meanwhile, has joined Democratic senators sponsoring legislation to end the practice.

In the last year, Gualtieri has made headlines for his involvement with federal immigration authorities to create a detention policy for undocumented immigrants who are arrested by local law enforcement. The agreement, which has been adopted by Tampa Bay sheriffs and many more across the state, is unrelated to the border situation.

The policy has been criticized as a violation of civil rights, and Gualtieri's move to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials came under fire at a recent debate amid growing polarization over treatment of undocumented immigrants under President Donald Trump's administration.