Column: Why sheriffs, feds are at odds on immigration

Published April 4, 2017

The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the nation's sheriffs are at a standoff.

ICE insists that sheriffs detain illegal immigrants in their local jails past the time period legally allowed under their local charges, and it claims that be legally done by following their formal requests called "detainers.'' These are civil, not criminal detainers that carry no proper legal authority and expose sheriffs (and local taxpayers) to costly civil liability for illegally detaining the individual.

While the illegal immigration debate is complex and emotional, I swore to follow the law, even when it's inconvenient. The federal government also must follow the law even when it's inconvenient, and it is wrong for the federal government to ask sheriffs to ignore the U.S. Constitution and the law that we are sworn to uphold by illegally keeping people in our jails.

To be clear, only the federal government has the authority and jurisdiction to deport people and enforce our nation's immigration laws. State and local law enforcement officials, including sheriffs, have no authority to enforce immigration laws. Sheriffs should assist ICE and other federal agencies to the extent permitted by law. But we must not be asked, or in this case expected, to act outside the confines of the law and risk civil liability and financial penalties, which are ultimately paid for by the taxpayers.

Every court in this country that has considered the issue has determined that ICE's civil "detainers," or requests, directed to sheriffs do not provide a lawful basis for sheriffs to hold someone in jail once their local charges are resolved. Even when ICE issues a civil administrative arrest warrant, signed by an ICE agent but not a judge, with their detainer request, the law does not allow sheriffs to serve these arrest warrants. Those warrants may only be served by ICE agents.

The president's recent executive order required the Department of Homeland Security to publish weekly reports identifying sheriffs and jails that will not honor the ICE civil detainer requests. Homeland Security began publishing these report two weeks ago. These misleading reports are, in addition to identifying sheriffs that are following the law, wrongly identifying sheriffs who are, in fact, cooperative.

In Pinellas County, we are not on the Homeland Security list because we have developed a lawful solution with ICE that can be implemented nationwide. I will continue to abide by the law and protect taxpayers from unnecessary civil financial exposure, and I welcome the opportunity to work with ICE in implementing a nationwide lawful solution.

We chastise our children for bullying behavior, and reward cooperative solutions. We should expect nothing less of our federal government.

Bob Gualtieri is the Pinellas County sheriff.