CLEARWATER — Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sat down at the front of the sanctuary Tuesday night and pursed his lips.
He adjusted his tie.
Centro Cristiano El Shaddai in Clearwater was packed with members of Pinellas County's Hispanic community. Workers filed in after a long day. Children nestled on parents' laps, growing drowsy in the humid air.
It was the first public discussion between the sheriff and some of his Hispanic constituents since the passage this month of a Florida sanctuary cities ban that Gualtieri helped craft. The meeting, organized by local religious leaders and immigrant advocacy groups including UniMex and the Florida Immigrant Coalition, gave the sheriff the chance to explain how the new legislation would be implemented and enabled those attending to ask how it would affect their lives.
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The legislation, Senate Bill 168, requires Florida law enforcement agencies to honor detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Most Florida jails already cooperate with federal immigration authorities, but discussion surrounding the new law — headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature — has sown fear and confusion in Florida's immigrant communities. Would police officers suddenly begin stopping people to ask for their papers? Would deportations rise?
Gualtieri had a simple message Tuesday.
"You should not be concerned," he said, aided by a Spanish translator. "Our job on the street, as the police, has nothing do with enforcing immigration law."
Even if someone walked right up to one of his deputies and admitted being in the country illegally, nothing would happen, he said. "That officer has no authority to do anything to you."
But if a person is arrested for a crime? That's a different story. Gualtieri said he would have no choice to let ICE officials come and get them from the county jail if they wanted.
Teenagers and advocates peppered the sheriff with questions. Sometimes, his answers didn't seem very reassuring.
Fourteen-year-old Miriam Cano, a student at Palm Harbor University High School, raised the microphone. She was born in the United States but her parents are from Mexico.
"My father, in order to support us financially, he must drive to operate his business. My mother must drive my sister and I to school and back every day," she said. "If they were to be stopped for minor traffic violations, would they be considered criminals for driving without a license? Would they take away my parents?"
Gualtieri said driving without a license is a misdemeanor and a low-level traffic violation might not mean her parents would be arrested and deported. The officer could choose how to handle it — do nothing, give them a ticket or take them to jail. Even if they did get booked into jail, it wasn't a sure bet ICE would send a warrant for them if they had no other criminal record, he said.
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Still, he didn't make any promises.
"I'm not going to tell you it can't happen," he said. "But I don't make that decision."
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Next, Gabriela Piquito, an 18-year-old cosmetology student, stepped up. Her words came out in a rush.
"We would like to know what happens to the children ..." she began.
"Too fast," Gualtieri said.
She repeated her words more slowly. "If parents were to be deported, what will happen to their children?"
She was worried about her relatives.
"I don't know. That is not a sheriff question," Gualtieri replied. The discussion moved on.
"He didn't really answer," Piquito said later in an interview. After Gualtieri left, the Hispanic liaison with his office, Lt. Michael Paniagua, returned and spoke with community members for another hour. He told Piquito that agencies would try to place children of a deported parent with relatives. Otherwise, they would go to social services.
Still, the sheriff won over much of the crowd with some of his comments.
"I believe that those of you that are here illegally, and especially that have been here a considerable amount of time who have families, kids in school, work, pay taxes, should be left alone," he said.
The United States shares some of the blame for their situation, he added.
"It is wrong now to just take people and throw them out."
People in the audience clapped loudly and smiled. Some yelled out, "Thank you," and, "Gracias."
But many advocates weren't satisfied. They had been following Gualtieri's rise on the political stage. They were there when he testified in support of the sanctuary cities bill on the floor of the state Senate. They had watched him join ICE officials to roll out two programs, one last year and one this month, that provide a pathway for sheriff's offices to hold undocumented immigrants in what Gualtieri said is a lawful way. They pressed him.
"You have power in our Capitol, in Tallahassee, so you were able to push for this bill," said Ana Lamb, president of a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
She asked Gualtieri to support a new bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses in Florida. Twelve states already have similar laws.
The audience clapped again.
"I haven't taken a position on that," Gualtieri replied. "I'm not saying yes, I'm not saying no."
The organizers thanked him for coming. He agreed to come back. Lt. Paniagua escorted him to his car.
Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report. Contact Kavitha Surana at email@example.com or (727) 893-8149. Follow @ksurana6.