ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri faced off Monday evening against critics of the immigration detention policy he was instrumental in creating.
At times contentious, the debate at Allendale United Methodist Church focused on a new jail housing agreement that Gualtieri says legally allows local jails to hold undocumented immigrants at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
To the sheriff, the policy ended a years-long legal quagmire. But immigration advocates believe the new protocol undermines civil rights, poisons police-community relations and ramps up fear in a political climate already hostile toward undocumented immigrants.
"What's most important for me in this conversation is to find out what the sheriff's plans are with this new relationship that they're evolving with ICE," said Mayra Calo, an immigration attorney who sat on the panel. "We need to foster a better relationship between the community and law enforcement."
About 70 people gathered in the pews to hear the discussion, organized by immigrant and civil rights advocacy groups including the Florida Immigrant Coalition and Women's March Pinellas. By the end, there was little consensus as the conversation meandered beyond the policy change itself. The sheriff found himself facing an emotional crowd upset with federal officials deporting scores of undocumented people across the country.
Gualtieri emphasized that his deputies are not helping ICE agents pick up undocumented immigrants. The sheriff said the agreement affects only those who have already been arrested and placed in local jails for crimes.
"In order for any of this to apply … you have to be in the jail," he said. "This has nothing to do with helping ICE do raids, this has nothing to do with your kids on the street, this has nothing to do with your friends in the community."
He also invoked the name of Kate Steinle, a California woman who was fatally shot by an undocumented immigrant in 2015. That case made national headlines because of the defendant's immigration status, and in December he was acquitted by a jury.
"I'm not going to take the chance that I'm going to release somebody from the jail who is going out to kill somebody," Gualtieri said, to protests from the audience. He also emphasized that someone could have a criminal or deportation history that his agency wouldn't be aware of.
But Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez, one of the immigrant advocacy panelists, said one of their biggest concerns about the new policy is that it could ensnare undocumented immigrants facing charges as minor as driving without a valid license.
"The majority of these people pose absolutely no threat to the public," said Sousa-Rodriguez, director of membership and organizing for the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
And, she added, Gualtieri is still cooperating with immigration authorities, even if his agency is not directly deporting people.
"Our federal government is trying to systematically deport millions of people, and so --"
Gualtieri interrupted her: "That's not my issue," he said. "That's not what we're doing."
"Yeah," Sousa-Rodriguez responded, "but you're turning a blind eye to all of the people that are getting deported, the people who you don't know anything about their background."
The new protocol that sparked the debate was introduced in January.
Since the 1980s, ICE officials issued requests to jails to hold inmates believed to be in the country illegally after their local charges were resolved.
But starting in 2014, a series of federal court rulings determined the requests violated the detainee's Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure. Honoring the requests made local law enforcement agencies vulnerable to lawsuits. Denying them risked releasing someone in the country illegally.
January's agreement allows ICE to issue a booking form that transfers custody from the local jail to federal immigration authorities, making the jail a holding cell.
The protocol first went into effect in 17 Florida counties, including all four in the Tampa Bay area. Gualtieri said Monday that the protocol is now available to every county in Florida.
Contact Kathryn Varn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.