Florida's new 'anti-sanctuary city' law requires local jails to honor ICE detainers. ICE says they have detainer agreements with at least 57 of Florida's 67 counties. Local law enforcement officials say they do not enforce immigration laws. Who's telling the truth? Does anyone even know?
It started in January 2018, and it's been called a "deportation machine" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Basic ordering agreements, a new collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Florida sheriffs, began with 17 recruits throughout Florida.
As of July 23, there are now 57 county jails involved, according to ICE documents. The agreements, known as BOAs, offer $50 a day per inmate detained up to 48 hours in county custody after their cases are resolved to wait for ICE to serve a warrant.
The rise in BOAs seems to be the latest indicator of the increased immigration crackdown in the state, alongside the passage of the "anti-sanctuary city" bill this month, which promptly led to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and a number of immigrant activist groups.
Last week, Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, even urged Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, to join the suit.
The bill, SB 168, requires sheriffs to enter into a cost reimbursement agreement with "a federal immigration agency," and specifically names BOAs as a "compliant agreement."
News of the latest BOA numbers came as a shock to Southern Poverty Law Center. Staff there say they've been stalled in attempts to obtain the most current data.
"That is a huge, huge number," says Viviana Bonilla López, legal fellow at the center. "Probably a lot of counties who maybe wouldn't have signed one feel like they have to comply with the law."
Yet from a legal standpoint, Bonilla López alleges, BOAs are just as unconstitutional as the bill.
AJ Hernandez Anderson, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees.
"What it's doing is requesting immigrants the same way ICE would request supplies. It's modifying people," Hernandez Anderson says. "The second problem is local law enforcement seems to think that the BOAs are a form of protection from lawsuits when in reality it's not, and it's not going to relieve them of any constitutional violations."
In December 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced it was suing Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay over the BOA Ramsay signed, citing a Fourth Amendment violation. The suit is still pending, center officials say.
ICE officials hold that the agency acts within federal laws.
"ICE does not comment on pending litigation," the agency said in a statement. "That said, absence of comment should in no way be construed as agreement with any of the allegations. ICE conducts activities in compliance with federal law and agency policy."
Only 10 county jails in Florida have not officially signed a BOA agreement, but some are pending, while others use a different agreement, according to immigration officials. Orange County Jail, for instance, doesn't officially have one signed, but they're still in compliance. Instead, they operate using an older arrangement known as an IGA or internal government agreement, ICE officials said.
This type of agreement is negotiated through the U.S. Marshals, with ICE attached as a rider. In these cases, inmates are detained at the county facilities but technically under ICE custody.
In Orange County, inmates can remain at the facility (but in ICE custody) up to 72 hours, says Michael Meade, acting director of enforcement and removal operations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The IGSA, or internal government service agreement, is similar, but it's a contract negotiated directly with ICE. There's no clear way to determine which agreement takes a "stronger" stance on immigration.
"As far as ICE is concerned, either a BOA or IGSA – either one of those work for us," Meade says. "They're different things, but at the end of the day we can work with either one."
In most cases, Meade says, places with IGAs or IGSAs get paid more per day than those with BOAs. Regardless of the agreements Florida sheriffs are making, immigration officials said "pretty much everybody is compliant in one way or another."
But the Florida Sheriff's Association says the new law won't impact any of these agreements.
"There are no additional costs associated with honoring ICE detainers," Nanette Schimpf, spokesperson for the Florida Sheriffs Association, wrote in an email. "All jail personnel perform the function as a collateral responsibility. There are no personnel dedicated to the function and SB 168 has no impact on BOA, IGA or IGSA."
But the passage of SB 168, dubbed an "anti-sanctuary city" bill, gives further incentive not to stray. The law, which went into effect July 1, requires municipal governments to comply with ICE detainers, contacting federal immigration authorities before an inmate's release.
If they don't? They could be sued by the state attorney general.
At the same time, the bill states that it "does not authorize" law enforcement to detain an undocumented immigrant "solely because the alien witnessed or reported a crime or was a victim of a criminal offense."
Still, immigrant rights groups across the state say people remain scared. Antonio Tovar-Aguilar, interim executive director for Farmworkers Association of Florida, says the majority of people simply won't be aware of the exception.
"For many police institutions it has actually put them in a very bad situation, because after building some trust with the community, that trust is going to evaporate with a law like this," Tovar-Aguilar says. "It is not going to contribute to making the community safer like the law pretends to. It's actually going to make cities more at risk."
Local law enforcement officials stressed they do not enforce immigration laws. While Orlando police are re-evaluating policies under SB 168, Orange County Sheriff's officials said functions won't change for them.
"We believe the city and OPD policies and practices are consistent with SB 168. However, we are reviewing our policies to ensure they comply with the technicalities of the bill," says an emailed statement from Orlando Police. "The Orlando Police Department is committed to working alongside our residents to keep our community safe and does not enforce immigration laws."
Orange County Sheriff's Office said they'll cooperate with federal law enforcement, but that the law will have little effect on practices, stating that "detention based on immigration detainers is primarily the responsibility of jails."
"The Orange County Sheriff's Office is not authorized to enforce federal immigration law. The passage of SB 168 does not change the functions of our deputies," the office said in a statement. "Additionally, immigration status rarely has any relevance to what our deputies do. Constitutionally, deputies are prohibited from discriminating against anyone based on their immigration status. OCSO deputies are empowered to enforce Florida state law and Orange County ordinances."
Officials with Orange County jail, officially known as the Orange County Corrections Department, provided a brief overview of how the agency works with ICE, but did not elaborate on the nature of their current agreement with federal immigration officials.
"All individuals booked at the Orange County Jail are fingerprinted, with the results of all screenings provided to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)," Tracy Zampaglione, jail spokeswoman, wrote in an email. "In some cases, ICE will file a written detainer with respect to an inmate of interest within the jail, and request to be alerted once the conditions of the inmate's release have been satisfied. This detainer gives ICE the opportunity to take custody of the inmate, or allow for his or her release from custody."
Yet the Southern Poverty Law Center, when announcing their suit against SB 168, says that cooperation with federal authorities will lead to "costly litigation" from lawsuits. The bill violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. constitution outlawing unreasonable seizure because of the sanctioned detention for already resolved cases, according to the SPLC.
"Deportations are part of civil federal law and local law enforcement is only authorized to enforce state criminal law, so there's an issue there, and it violates the Fourth Amendment because they're holding someone without belief that the person has committed a crime," Bonilla López says. "They can't enforce federal immigration law. This creates a legal problem."
Raid announcements from the Trump administration, the passage of SB 168 and the overall climate around illegal immigration has created a perfect storm, bringing in a high number of calls from worried undocumented immigrants, according to staff at the Farm Workers Association of Florida and the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
"It's a combination of the new law – because we definitely saw an uptick right when the law passed – and then the raids really got people scared, so I think it's a combination of those two things," says Thomas Kennedy, political director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "And the overall climate of Trump saying disgusting crap all the time obviously doesn't help."
Call volume averaged about 280 calls a week for the past month, says Kennedy, which he says is "triple" their usual amounts. Similarly, the Farm Workers Association is getting more in-person visitors. They're gone from averaging 200 to 250 at all five offices across the state to around 300, Tovar-Aguilar says.
The attitude is the same, he says. People aim to stay as long as they can. "It's a rollercoaster. People don't know what to expect. They are afraid," he says. "For many of them, returning to their home countries [means to] either live in poverty or die in violence."