Kriseman statement on St. Petersburg's sanctuary city status leads to confusion

Published Feb. 5, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman on Sunday sought to clarify confusion surrounding his statement about St. Petersburg's status as a sanctuary city, including pushback from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri over cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

In a blog post published late Friday, Kriseman wrote that fear within the Muslim community stoked by President Donald Trump's strict immigration policies led to his decision to declare St. Petersburg as a city that will protect immigrants from "harmful federal immigration laws," a stance that was widely interpreted as an official "sanctuary city" designation.

"We will not expend resources to help enforce such laws," he wrote, "nor will our police officers stop, question or arrest an individual solely on the basis that they may have unlawfully entered the United States."

The controversy over so-called "sanctuary" jurisdictions was rekindled when the president signed an executive order late last month that says he will cut federal funding from cities and counties that "willfully violate federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States." There is currently no legal definition for a sanctuary city. The executive order directs the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to decide which areas fall under that umbrella.

In an interview Sunday, Kriseman clarified his post, saying the city is philosophically, not literally, a sanctuary city that supports other governments that have taken that route. He said the Sheriff's Office decides whether to notify federal agents of an accused criminal's immigration status.

Gualtieri said Sunday that he has no intention of ceasing cooperation with federal authorities and called Kriseman's statement misleading.

"When somebody . . . puts out there that in effect St. Petersburg is a sanctuary jurisdiction, I think it causes a lot of confusion out there and is very misleading to the public because it makes it sound like it's some sort of declaratory statement, and it's not," Gualtieri said.

Under the current immigration enforcement program, local law enforcement agencies notify the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency if a person booked into jail is not a U.S. citizen and there is an indication the person is in the country illegally, said Gualtieri, whose agency runs the Pinellas County Jail. From there, ICE can issue a court order to detain the person until federal agents take custody.

Kriseman pointed to a sentence in the statement where he acknowledged that structure of power: "While our county sheriff's office is ultimately responsible for notifying the federal government about individuals who are here illegally, I have no hesitation in declaring St. Petersburg a sanctuary from harmful federal immigration laws."

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"There is no intention to make it misleading, and that's why it was worded the way it was," Kriseman said. "I thought it was pretty clear."

When asked which "harmful federal immigration laws" he was talking about, Kriseman referred to the executive order, which includes a section that could potentially give local police the power to investigate and detain undocumented immigrants.

"Our officers aren't walking up to people and checking for their papers, and we're not going to," he said. "The executive order is very broadly written, and there's a lot of interpretation that's happening right now. If that's the interpretation, we're not doing that."

That the statement stopped short of an official sanctuary designation was largely lost as reaction spread online over the weekend.

City Council member Charlie Gerdes said he saw several posts on social media from people who thought it was a declaration and said he understood how the language could be interpreted that way. Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said she hadn't seen the statement yet, but when read a portion by a reporter, she, too, thought it was a designation.

The bottom line, said City Council member Karl Nurse, is that Kriseman took a stronger stance than he has the legal authority to carry out.

"I think the mayor was trying to communicate that he is on the side of people who have come to this country, at least emotionally," Nurse said. "But he can't as a practical matter translate that into legal action."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or Follow @kathrynvarn.