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Deputies in Florida help enforce immigration law, but Biden aims to change that

The Biden effect in Florida: The president-elect has accused Trump of immigration policies that emphasize fear and division rather than common-sense solutions.
Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, speaking here in November, helped create the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Trump sought to eliminate.
Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, speaking here in November, helped create the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Trump sought to eliminate. [ CAROLYN KASTER | AP ]
Published Jan. 13
Updated Jan. 15

TAMPA — President-elect Joe Biden has pledged an about-face on immigration enforcement. The question for many in the Tampa Bay area is what that will look like.

During his four years in the White House, President Donald Trump made cutting back on immigration a cornerstone of his agenda. Trump imposed restrictions on programs like Temporary Protected Status for those from troubled countries, capped public assistance for many immigrants, lengthened the citizenship test and built dozens of miles of wall along the Mexico border.

Among the Trump policies with the most direct local impact is the so-called 287(g) agreement program — partnerships with cooperating local law enforcement agencies that are named for the federal code authorizing them.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, shown here in October speaking in Tampa, said she is counting on the Biden administration "to reverse Trump’s harsh policies, modernize America’s immigration system, support families, and strengthen our economy.”
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, shown here in October speaking in Tampa, said she is counting on the Biden administration "to reverse Trump’s harsh policies, modernize America’s immigration system, support families, and strengthen our economy.” [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The agreements require local agencies to inform ICE when they take people into custody who are in the country illegally and to hold them for 48 hours, even if they’re eligible for release otherwise. This gives federal agents time to arrest them. Some local agencies also undergo special immigration enforcement training.

Biden has pledged to cut back on partnerships with local law enforcement when it comes to immigration enforcement. He has accused Trump of immigration policies that emphasize fear and division rather than common-sense solutions.

Among others who have problems with 287(g) agreements is U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat.

“As a former county commissioner, I am concerned when the federal government attempts to saddle local communities with costly obligations that are the responsibility of federal authorities,” Castor said.

Other critics call the program a waste of time and resources because it triggers deportation proceedings for people accused of only minor offenses.

“As an immigration attorney practicing in the Tampa Bay area, we have seen more raids during the Trump administration than during the Obama administration,” said Ananis Makar, whose law firm has offices in Plant City.

The federal government under Trump has exaggerated criminal activity among undocumented immigrants in its campaign to justify mass deportations, said Austin Kocher, a geographer at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — a repository of federal data maintained by Syracuse University.

Using federal Freedom of Information laws, the clearinghouse analyzed records from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and found that during the first three years of the Trump administration, the growth in the number of immigrants detained is attributed entirely to immigrants with no criminal convictions.

“Even among detained immigrants with criminal convictions, ICE’s data show a decrease in serious convictions and an increase in minor convictions,” Kocher said.

He hopes the office under Biden will be more forthcoming with its data so people can analyze what’s happening for themselves.

“To this end,” Kocher said, “we hope that ICE decides to end its strategy of stonewalling public requests for data and chooses instead to adopt a spirit of greater transparency going forward.”

Biden should dismantle the 287(g) agreements to send a signal to local governments that they should redirect local resources to more pressing needs, such as the coronavirus pandemic, said Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel for ACLU national.

The Trump administration increased the number of 287(g) agreements nationwide, from 34 at the end of 2016 to 151 as of November, Shah said. In Florida, 49 local law enforcement agencies have agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including the sheriff’s offices in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Polk counties.

The Polk Sheriff’s Office isn’t expecting any major changes in immigration enforcement, said spokeswoman Carrie Horstman.

“We followed the same process during the Trump administration, and the Obama administration,” Horstman said.

In Pasco, the Sheriff’s Office will be watching for what happens under Biden.

“While we are unable to speak to hypothetical changes, we are constantly monitoring any law or policy changes, and will adjust our practices accordingly, if necessary,” spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is not part of a 287(g) agreement. Sheriff Chad Chronister said his deputies will continue to put people in jail if they commit crimes regardless of their immigration status.

“As a law enforcement agency, we enforce the laws, we do not make them,” Chronister said. “This doesn’t change when a new president is in the White House. Our deputies are not trained to act as ICE agents, however, we have and will continue to cooperate with all of our federal law enforcement partners in order to best serve and protect our local community.”

Ana Lamb, a Tampa immigrant advocate, said she hopes the Biden administration will consider the vital role undocumented immigrants play in the U.S. economy as it sets new policies.
Ana Lamb, a Tampa immigrant advocate, said she hopes the Biden administration will consider the vital role undocumented immigrants play in the U.S. economy as it sets new policies. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ / TIMES | Times ]

In the week before Biden is inaugurated, Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to defend partnering with local law enforcement agencies as “essential to protecting public safety,” said agency spokesman Tim Oberle in Houston.

“And the agency aims to work cooperatively with local jurisdictions to ensure that criminal aliens are not released into U.S. communities to commit additional crimes.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that in fiscal 2020, ended Sept. 30, the 287(g) program made possible the conviction of 37 undocumented immigrants for homicide, 920 for assault, 104 for sex offenses/assaults, 377 for obstructing police, 190 for weapon offenses, and 1,261 for dangerous drugs.

Trump has issued more than 400 executive orders related to immigration since he took office in 2017, according to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Migration Policy Institute. A report from the institute said the orders are likely to have a lasting effect because they dismantled and rebuilt elements of an immigration system that hasn’t undergone sweeping reform since 1996.

Biden will also use executive orders to implement his immigration agenda, but members of his transition team said the new administration would “need time” to reverse Trump’s policies.

“It’s a matter of setting up the guardrails,” Biden has said.

Rep. Castor welcomed Biden’s choice of Cuban-born Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is part of Homeland Security.

During an earlier stint with the department, Mayorkas helped create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump has sought to eliminate. He “brings a deep understanding to our immigration system and the value of immigrants,” Castor said.

“I trust that Secretary-designee Mayorkas will work to reverse Trump’s harsh policies, modernize America’s immigration system, support families, and strengthen our economy.”

At stake is a fair future for many of the estimated 10 million to 12 million people living in the United States illegally, said Ana Lamb of Tampa, who has worked more than 20 years as an immigrant advocate.

“All of these people have contributed to this country for decades,” Lamb said. “They are the workforce, they are the essential workers.”

The Biden effect in Florida is an ongoing series that looks at what the Joe Biden Administration means for Florida.