Sheriff launches training program enabling Pinellas jail to hold immigration detainees

The program aimed at helping local law enforcement agencies cooperate with federal immigration authorities comes days after the Florida Legislature passed a contentious bill banning sanctuary cities.
Published May 6
Updated May 6

LARGO — Less than a week after state lawmakers passed a bill to ban so-called sanctuary cities, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and 10 other Florida sheriffs on Monday signed agreements designed to help them legally comply with requests from federal authorities to hold undocumented immigrants in local jails.

The warrant service officer agreement, the first of its kind in the United States, trains and certifies sheriff's deputies to serve federal immigration warrants on jail inmates at the request of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agreement is yet another attempt at a legal workaround so sheriffs can comply with these so-called detainer requests, called unconstitutional by critics and some courts.

Last week's passage of SB 168 by the Florida House and Senate raises the stakes for sheriffs by essentially making it a requirement that they honor a detainer. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned as an immigration hardliner, is expected to sign the bill.

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, appearing with the 11 Florida sheriffs at a news conference Monday, encouraged other sheriffs to take part.

Said Gualtieri, "While immigration is the responsibility of the federal government, public safety is the responsibility of all law enforcement officers.

ICE issues detainer requests when immigration officials have probable cause to believe an individual can be deported under federal immigration law. Under current federal law, however, local law enforcement officials don't have the authority to serve federal warrants.

With their new status as warrant service officers, deputies can honor detainer requests "in an unequivocal, lawful way," Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri called the program a better option for sheriffs than two other programs that enable local law enforcement officials to legally serve federal warrants.

One is the 287g program, which deputizes state and local law enforcement officers so they conduct immigration investigations, interviewingg people about their immigration status and make arrests for violation of immigration law. The program is costly, requiring four weeks of training in South Carolina, and unfeasible for many agencies.

Under the other option, known as the basic ordering agreement, ICE sends jail operators a booking form that transfers custody of detainees from the local jail to federal immigration authorities. The jail operator is paid up to $50 to hold the inmate for up to 48 hours. The program is working well for the roughly 30 sheriffs who have signed the agreements, according to Gualtieri.

The new warrant service officer program requires just eight hours of training, Gualtieri said. He expects to train and certify about 40 deputies at his agency so certified personnel will be working in the jail at all times.

Gualtieri said his agency will continue to take part in both the basic ordering agreement and warrant service office programs. The Pasco and Hernando sheriffs' offices are currently among five in Florida participating in the 287g agreements. Still, representatives signed on Monday to the warrant service officer agreements, too.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister has declined to take part in the programs.

In a statement Monday, Chronister said, "While this may be an appropriate or necessary solution for other jurisdictions, I believe our participation in immigration enforcement programs such as these could discourage victims from coming forward which goes against our purpose.”

Monday's announcement is the latest development in a years-old debate on detainers.

In 2014, the first federal court rulings found that the ICE requests did not give jail operators legal authority to hold inmates after their local charges were resolved. Doing so, the courts found, violated the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure.

To provide legal cover, Gualtieri helped create the basic ordering agreement protocol, and the warrant service officer program, representing national law enforcement groups.

Still, immigrant advocates say the new schemes don't resolve another legal flaw: Under current law, arrest warrants allowing ICE to take custody do not have to be reviewed by a judge.

In addition, some question the level of training that deputies would receive and whether local governments could be liable if the program were challenged. Class action lawsuits are pending in other parts of the country.

What’s more, law-abiding immigrants and low-level offenders end up in the detainer program, said Ana Lamb of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Pinellas.

"These are good people, parents who go to work and go to school, " Lamb said.

Detainer requests are issued for any immigrant facing deportation orders as well as for those with criminal records, said David Marin, deputy executive associate director for ICE.

"When that person gets arrested for a crime and we're notified of that," Marin said, "we have to take action."

READ MORE: Ban on ‘sanctuary cities’ to become Florida law after anguished debate

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

READ MORE: Immigration advocates debate sheriff over new jail policy

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

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