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Trump's immigration order on sanctuary cities doesn't worry Tampa Bay officials

President Donald Trump says he will cut funding for counties or cities that don't cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

The executive order he signed this week applies to so-called "sanctuary" cities or counties that "willfully violate federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States."

Tampa Bay's top cops want to make sure that hammer doesn't fall on them.

That's because a 2015 report by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C., think tank that favors stricter immigration policies, identified Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando as sanctuaries. Local law enforcement leaders dispute that report and say they've been cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

"When they ask us to do things within the law," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, "we operate with them and their programs to help them take those that are illegal who have committed crimes . . . and get them out of here."

That view was echoed in Hillsborough County.

Col. Ken Davis, commander of detention services at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, said the county still holds people in local jails for federal immigration officials, which they did 55 times last year.

"Some cities pride in being called a sanctuary city," he said. "This county follows the law."

St. Petersburg immigration lawyer Arturo Rios said Trump's message foreshadows years of tougher immigration policies ahead.

"They're going to go after everybody, and I don't think that there's going to be a fine line drawn between criminal and noncriminal," Rios said. "This is going to be an era that's going to be heavy on enforcement. I don't think there's going to be much empathy or a lot of leeway."

Under the executive action, it will be up to the homeland security secretary to designate areas as sanctuaries. It also calls for the creation of a public list that will be released on a weekly basis with crimes committed by immigrants in jurisdictions that failed to honor detention orders.

"These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic," the order reads.

During his campaign, Trump touted examples of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, including the murder of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. The suspect in that case had been deported five times, several media outlets reported.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the think tank that produced the 2015 report, said Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties made the list because "they are refusing to cooperate with (federal immigration authorities) in certain cases," which falls within her definition of a sanctuary county or city.

Gualtieri said Thursday that the list is "rhetoric by a non-governmental entity that's a less-than-credible advocacy group" and emphasized that his office complies with federal law.

Under the current federal immigration enforcement program, local law enforcement alerts the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency if a person is booked into a jail who is not a U.S. citizen and if there's an indication the person may be in the country illegally. If ICE makes that determination, the agency could issue an order to detain the person indefinitely until federal agents take over custody. The order is generally issued by a federal judge in the form of a warrant or a deportation order, Gualtieri said.

"The people we're talking about are criminals," Gualtieri said. "If they're here illegally and they're criminals and committing crimes, then they should be gone."

He suspects the reason Pinellas and other Florida agencies ended up on the think tank's map is this: After several 2014 court decisions found ICE's detention orders are requests, not law, the sheriff's offices in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties refused to honor the holds unless they included probable cause. The agency has since tightened the rules in the process that exists now, which Gualtieri said is legally sound.

Gualtieri said he's hoping to set up a meeting with the homeland securit secretary during a visit to Washington in a couple of weeks to ensure the list isn't used to determine which areas the executive order applies to.

"I'm confident we can get the right people in the right places to understand what this landscape is," he said.

Pasco and Hernando counties issued similar statements.

"It is clear that local law enforcement needs help from the federal government, as they are the entity responsible for enforcement," Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said in a statement. "We are committed to doing whatever is necessary, so long as it is legal and ethical to usher in a solution to this problem."

The offices of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said they weren't concerned about a loss of federal funding, saying neither city has sanctuary status.

Regardless of whether Trump's directive applies, tougher enforcement will put pressure on a system that is already clogged, local immigration lawyers said.

There are about 250 immigration judges nationwide, with just roughly 30 of those presiding in Florida, according to Department of Justice numbers. Christian Zeller, a partner at the immigration law firm Maney Gordon Zeller, said immigration courts are backlogged to the point where some of his clients have hearing dates scheduled as far out as the year 2022.

"There are not enough immigration judges and if more people were put in deportations that will certainly just clog the court system more," he said. "I wonder where one would detain all those immigrants for such a long time."

Times staff writers Steve Contorno, Rick Danielson and Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 445-4157 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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