LARGO, Fla. (FOX 13) - A new program designed to help county jails comply with requests from the federal government to hold undocumented immigrants launched Monday.
It’s called the Warrant Service Officer Program. Sheriff's deputies will be trained and certified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to serve federal warrants on undocumented inmates.
Sheriffs from 11 Florida counties came together to sign the agreement with ICE.
"In order for this to apply to you, you have to go out and commit a burglary, commit a robbery, commit some sort of a state law violation or something else you are arrested for that winds you up in a county jail,” explained Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Officials say taking part in the program makes it easier to then work with ICE.
For example, if a 48-hour detainer request is issued along with a warrant for an undocumented inmate, the deputies will serve that warrant and turn the person over to the feds.
"This is the best of all available options to lawfully honor the detainers because it is easy to implement and it is legally unchallengeable,” Gualtieri said.
Under current federal law, local law enforcement officials don't have the authority to serve federal warrants, like the ones issued by ICE.
About 9,000 detainer requests are made each year in Florida. The federal government says it expects to see an increase in deportations, thanks to this new program.
"The WSO program will strengthen the security of their community by ensuring the custody of criminal aliens in their jails are safely transferred to ICE so we may initiate further removal proceedings in the safest possible way,” said David Marin, ICE deputy executive associate director.
Immigrant advocates said they have concerns about the WSO program, saying low-level offenders are being swept up in federal detainers, making them more fearful to report crimes and cooperate with police.
"The reality is our community already has a lot of distrust in law enforcement, and then the combination with ICE is another horrible combination,” Pamela Gomez with the Florida Immigrant Coalition said.
Bay Area leaders say those populations are absolutely not the targets.
"The majority of people we're going to deal with in this program come here to commit crime. They don’t come here and they’re illegal and, whoops they get caught,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.
Pinellas will be the first county in Florida to utilize the initiative. In the coming weeks, about 40-deputies will go through the one-day training.
ICE plans to expand the WSO program to the rest of the state and, eventually, the country.