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Demonstrators protest ICE deal to keep undocumented immigrants in local jails

TAMPA — Two little girls stood under a blazing sun holding a mock check made out to Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.

The payor: U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The amount: $50.

That's the sum that ICE will pay the Sheriff's Office under a recently-announced contract to hold undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours in the county jail until federal agents can pick them up.

The little girls were among some three dozen demonstrators who showed up to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's Ybor City building to condemn the agreement and call on Chronister, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and other local sheriffs to withdraw from the deal.

"They are going to be in the business of not serving and protecting our communities, but rather holding immigrants for ICE so our families can be separated even more," said Nancy Palacios, an undocumented immigrant and congregation organizer for Faith in Florida, a coalition of faith organizations that advocate for social justice and economic equality.

BACKSTORY: Pinellas sheriff, feds announce changes to controversial immigrant detention policy

The demonstration is another local flare up in a contentious national debate over how much, if at all, local law enforcement agencies and jail operators should cooperate with ICE.

Last month, Chronister stood alongside ICE's acting director, Thomas Homan, and Gualtieri as they announced the new protocol to hold immigrants for ICE after their local criminal charges have been resolved. The new scheme is designed as a legal workaround to fend off lawsuits accusing sheriffs of violating detainees' protection against illegal search and seizure.

The new protocol calls for ICE to send a booking form that transfers custody of the detainees from the local jail to federal immigration authorities. At that point, officials have said, the jail's only role is housing the detainee. The Sheriffs' Offices will be paid up to $50 to hold the inmate for up to 48 hours. The new protocol was launched in 17 Florida counties including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando and eventually will expand to the rest of the state and country.

Hillsborough sheriff's officials did not respond to requests for comment about the protestors' comments. Gualtieri has accused demonstrators of weaving a misleading "false narrative."

The Pinellas sheriff and his counterparts in other counties have said that they have an obligation to cooperate with ICE to remove dangerous criminals from the country, and that the new protocol is a legally sound way to protect their agencies from lawsuits.

But immigrant activists say local authorities should be distancing themselves from ICE instead of bolstering cooperation because President Donald Trump's administration has pledged to cast a wider net. They fear ICE will ensnare undocumented immigrants who are arrested for minor offenses, who don't pose a threat to the community. And they argue immigrants will stop cooperating with local law enforcement for fear that it will get them deported.

"There is no greater way to dishonor God, or whatever authority in the universe you recognize, than to break up families," said the Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, pastor at Tampa's St. Paul Lutheran Church and executive director for the Florida Council of Churches. "What I'm being asked to do in order to be a law abiding citizen of Tampa and Hillsborough County ... is to give my taxes to law enforcement so they can break up families."

Another speaker, Girsea Martinez-Rosas of Tampa, complained that her father was unfairly deported to Mexico in 2008 by ICE, leaving her mother alone to raise four daughters. She issued this ultimatum to Chronister, an appointed Republican sheriff running for election this year:

"We will ensure that all voters know Sheriff Chad Chronister is complicit with Trump's mass deportation machine come November."

Contact Tony Marrero at or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.