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  1. Opinion

Column: Hillsborough will not turn sheriff's office into a branch office for ICE

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister
Published May 10

The recently created confusion resulting from the Florida Legislature's passage of Senate Bill 168, the Federal Immigration Enforcement Act, demands that we again clarify for our community where we stand on criminal justice as it relates to immigration status.

A crime is a crime no matter your immigration status. You break the law in Hillsborough County, you steal, you harm an innocent victim, my deputies are trained to arrest you. A victim of a crime is a victim no matter their immigration status. If someone intentionally harms you, steals from you, injures you, we train our deputies to help victims come forward and seek justice.

Enforcement of immigration laws has long been the responsibility of federal law enforcement agencies. It requires specialized training for special agents and deportation officers. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has more than 20,000 employees enforcing nearly 400 federal statutes from 400 offices in the United States and around the world — three in Hillsborough County. The agency has an annual budget of nearly $6 billion.

Senate Bill 168 is a solution for a problem we do not have in Hillsborough County. It has long been our practice in Hillsborough to cooperate with federal law enforcement and that will not change. While legislators were busy espousing views on illegal immigrants and cities that provide refuge for lawbreakers, in Tampa and Hillsborough my team has and always will enforce the laws of Florida. We will put criminals in jail regardless of their immigration status. We will seek cooperation from crime victims regardless of their immigration status. We will cooperate with ICE agents who have probable cause to enforce federal immigration laws.

Our community and those holding lawful immigration statuses deserve these protections. Just as we would not seek, however, to have ICE agents enforce Florida's laws, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is not in the business of doing ICE's investigative and enforcement work for them. Law enforcement agencies have long respected their jurisdictional limits and boundaries. There are no crimes okay to commit in our community simply because the victim is not a U.S. citizen. I am hopeful the Florida Legislature agrees. Moreover, the tools necessary to investigate crimes require that all witnesses and victims feel safe to come forward with information instead of hiding in the shadows hoping a deputy won't notice them.

While other agencies may wish to deputize their team members as ICE agents or ICE warrant officers, we believe this sends the wrong message to our community. We believe that ICE agents have an important job to do — stopping illegal immigration that threatens national security and public safety. We will work with our local criminal justice partners to make sure the information ICE provides to us is transmitted to every stakeholder in our system. We will not, however, turn our office into a branch office for ICE.

Enforcing the criminal laws of Florida is more than just checking immigration status. Section 287(g) programs and the newly created Warrant Service Officer program do not reinforce a partnership with local law enforcement but instead instill fear in crime victims and impede the cooperation necessary to catch criminals.

The good news is our compliance with Senate Bill 168 does not require our agency to do anything other than what we have already been doing. We continue to pledge our cooperation and assistance to those ICE agents who have specialized training and make their living enforcing immigration laws. We equally pledge to support crime victims and important witnesses to crime no matter their immigration status. We cannot confuse the two missions and we must do both equally well.

Chad Chronister is the Hillsborough County sheriff.

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